Aloha, true believers! After a long and strenuous planning period, we are ready to launch into the next big adventure. Mucho props to my cowriter Kasey Kagawa. And thanks for all the reviews, everyone, I really appreciate those. Now, on with the show!
Jaime Sommers's living room was decorated in a nice way, if measured against a certain selection of criteria. For one, it was visually pleasing. It rated high on leaving enough room to move to the sofa from all directions, and had most of the seating facing the TV - always a plus. What it emphatically did not do was provide maximum floorspace for demonstrations of autonomous robots. This was going to be a problem.
Becca crouched in the doorway leading to her room, bent over her "baby" - a six-wheeled contraption not entirely unlike the Mars rover on a smaller scale. Instead of holding aloft a solar cell like the flight deck of an aircraft carrier, her robot's top had several beams sprouting out of it, mounting cameras and other sensors high up for maximum utility. Next to the robot stood Becca's netbook, set up to receive the video transmission from the robot's cameras. A thick strand of cables wrapped in isolation tape trailed from the robot's rear, leading into her room where it connected the mobile unit to a still quite immobile power supply. It was one of Becca's worries - rebuilding the suspension to carry the additional weight of nickel-cadmium cells meant more work, but then again, this wasn't the final chassis.
It was one of those projects where every step just made her realize how far she still was from the final result. Becca loved every second of that feeling. But tonight, other things were on her mind; she glanced up every so often and looked at the windows out to the street. After a few seconds, her eyes darted back to the netbook's screen.
While Becca made her final adjustments, Will and Jaime were busy adjusting the layout of the furniture to make room for Becca's robot. The demonstration was, after all, for Will's benefit, who snuck interested glances at the robot whenever convenient. Jaime had seen quite enough of it over the weekend already, but she knew that she wouldn't be able to hide her pride in Becca when the demonstration started. Still, the matter of the sofa remained; Will was already at the other end.
"You should throw this thing out," Will said. Jaime smiled politely. "No, I'm serious, Jaime. You and me, we can carry this right to the porch."
"It's my first couch, Will," Jaime said.
"I know, and I'm saying it's time for your second couch."
"Okay, how about this," Jaime said. "If we lift it and it falls apart, I buy a new couch."
"It's not just going to fall apart, Jaime," Will said. "Couches don't do that unless the internal frame is broken. You would have noticed that sitting on it."
"Then what's wrong with keeping it?" Jaime said.
"It's old," Will said, as if that was the most obvious fact in the entire observable universe.
"I like old stuff," Jaime said with a smile. "Like you."
"Jaime!" Will said, looking horrified for a second. "That is not funny."
"We're both older than this couch, Will. You know that."
"All joking aside, you're not seriously suggesting that a couch should retire at 65 like a person does, are you? I would expect a good couch to last 10 years, not more."
"Ah," Jaime said. "So you're proposing that we come up with an equivalent of dog years for couches?"
"No," Will said, "I'm proposing we move this couch before your sister kills us both."
Jaime turned around to look at Becca, who - sensing the attention - looked up from the netbook.
"What's the holdup?" Becca asked.
"We're arguing about couches and being old," Jaime said and signed. Ever since the argument the week before, Jaime had paid extra attention to signing when she spoke with Becca, which was not - strictly speaking - necessary, but still nice.
"Argue while you're moving it, then," Becca said.
"Just give us a second," Jaime said. She turned back to Will. "You heard the boss, Will. Let's do it."
"Remember, normal strength," Will said quietly, as if there was need to whisper. "Don't let the couch get the better of you."
"I'd like to see it try," Jaime said, kneeled down with Will and tried to lift it.
The universe couldn't let that one slip. When Jaime and Will lifted the sofa up, Jaime felt a quick stab of pain in her lower back. She winced, but kept her grip.
Will's eyebrows shot up. "Put it down," he grunted out, struggling with his end of the couch.
Jaime's side of the couch didn't waver. "No, I got it," she said.
"Putting down now," Will said. In between short puffs of breath, he set the sofa back down, forcing Jaime to follow suit.
Jaime stood back up. "What was that for?" she asked, rubbing a spot on her back.
"You were in pain, Jaime," Will said. "I saw it."
She waved him off with her right hand. "It was nothing. Really. Now, come on, let's move this thing so Becca can show us her robot."
"You're in pain," Will said. "Let me get my kit."
"No, no - no, Will, it's -" Jaime looked at him and forced a smile. "I'm fine, really," she said. "It's passing already. Probably spent a little too much time hunched over with Becca. It happens."
"Jaime, I can check it -"
"No," Jaime said. "I'm fine, alright? I'll just sit down for a moment." She smiled again. "Why don't you join me? The couch can wait a few minutes."
Will weighed his options. Sure, it could be nothing - and truth be told, he hadn't gotten a lot of close contact with Jaime since the accident. Turning it down when she was offering was foolish.
"You shouldn't be doing anything strenuous," Dr. William Anthros, MD said. "And you haven't...taken your bath today. She - it will help with the pain."
"Come on, Will," Jaime said. "I just wanted to see Becca show you the robot. The couch isn't that heavy, I can do this."
"No, I can't let you risk that now," Will said. "You go take your bath first. Doctor's orders."
Jaime wanted to cuss out Will. But Becca's presence was felt keenly, and even though her little sister wouldn't be able to read anything specific with Jaime's back to her, Jaime decided that it wasn't worth it. Becca would notice that something wasn't right, and it wasn't worth fighting about this. A moment's hesitation had bought her mind enough time to roll out the deescalation protocol, smooth the waves, play nice. And with Will - well, sometimes Jaime couldn't escape the feeling that he just didn't know any better. Shouting at him wouldn't be...fair.
"Fine," Jaime said, relenting. "I'll take a bath, Doctor Anthros. You have fun with the couch."
Will watched Jaime walk off to Becca's puzzled look.
"Jaime?" Becca asked. "What's wrong? Where are you going? I thought we were doing this now."
"I'm really sorry, Becca, but I must have hurt my back," Jaime said, taking her hands off of bracing her spine to sign. "Will says I should take a hot bath to relax it before it gets worse, so - I'm taking a bath. I'll try to hurry, okay?"
"...o-kay," Becca said.
Jaime smiled at her little sister, stepped into the bathroom and closed the door behind her. Becca looked at Will, who clearly did not fancy meeting her gaze.
"What does she mean, 'I'm taking a bath'?" Becca said.
"She means she's - taking a bath," Will said. He said the first words absent-mindedly, then remembered who he was speaking to and slowed down to overemphasize every sound in the second half. Becca refrained from telling him that both were equally unhelpful in reading his lips.
"So, she's taking a bath?" she asked again.
"Yes," Will said, exaggerating his nod. Becca rolled her eyes slightly.
"Okay, whatever," Becca said. "You wanna see robot, you make room for robot, comprendé?"
"Yes," Will repeated.
Becca took that to mean that the conversation was over and went back to fiddling with the machine. Will looked at the bathroom door for a few seconds, still trying to recall more details to determine if there was something worth really worrying about with Jaime's back. Having concluded that he just didn't have enough data, he went back to the task at hand. He bowed down, grasped the couch and - with some effort - lifted his end up. With a grunt, he held it, looked over to the other side and saw only Becca in her corner, completely not paying attention to him. Despite his intense wishes, the other end of the couch did not levitate through his raw willpower, and after a few seconds he set the couch back down.
To the sound of his own heavy breathing, Will concluded that he hadn't thought this one through.
Jaime stood in the bathroom and did nothing. Her back was still hurting, Will was concerned, she had told Becca - but Jaime didn't actually want to take a bath. That was the thing. There could have been a thousand good reasons, but Jaime didn't want to. She wanted to be back out there with Becca, helping to move that damn couch, watching her little sister show off their hard work to Will. He was finally showing some genuine interest in Becca for the first time with this robot, but then her back acted up, and the other Will, the new Will from Berkut, called the little family moment off and told her to go "take a bath". Showing off what Becca had accomplished was far more important to Jaime than her daily session with Truewell, but it seemed like it was less and less about what Jaime Sommers wanted these days.
After a few moments, Jaime sighed and went over to the bathtub. She opened the tap with her left hand and checked the temperature with her bionic hand. The water went from lukewarm to scaldingly hot after a few seconds; Jaime dialed back accordingly. While the tub filled, she unbuttoned her jeans and worked her way out of them. Her new bionic legs seemed to have more heft to their thighs than her old legs did; by Jaime's standards, it wasn't quite enough to go shopping for new pants, but it was enough to annoy her. Will's big talk about fidelity in the reproduction didn't seem to be worth much if they couldn't even get the proportions right.
She finally stepped out of the jeans and gave them a critical look. She hadn't noticed the oil spots before, but Jaime realized quickly that she had wiped her hands on her pants when she worked on the robot's suspension for Becca. With an annoyed grunt, she pulled the faux leather belt out of its loops and dumped the pants into her laundry basket. More in accordance with her treasured job as chief mechanic, she was wearing the rattiest of ratty t-shirts - its iconic Che Guevera print long faded to near invisibility -, and the lithium grease on that consigned it into the laundry, too. Next came the underwear, boxer briefs and a sports bra. Jaime had never much liked loose or excessively flattering underwear, and with the heightened physical activity in her new life, it seemed like practicality could chalk up another victory. Finally, she stripped off her socks and climbed gingerly into the tub, wincing a little from the sore spot on her back. Intellectually, she knew that she still didn't weigh all that much more than a normal human being (if there was any detectable difference at all), but she was still waiting for the tub to tip over, spill her onto the cold floor and play a wacky sound effect.
Here we go again, she thought. "Jinx," she said a second later, but if the universe was truly out to punish her for trying to predict the next catastrophe, it might have let that one slide.
She sat down in the tub, drew her legs in, and watched the water level rise. After a few seconds of careful observation, she leaned back and waited for Truewell's voice in her ear. The water level rose again, but not significantly. She was in the water up to her neck, with her knees breaking the surface owing to the small size of the tub. The only sound in the bathroom was the still-running tap.
A click and a beep in her bionic ear told Jaime that Truewell was connected. Are you ready, Jaime?
Jaime sighed. "Can't this wait just a half-hour?"
You're already in the tub. We might as well take care of it now, Jaime. I'll make this quick and you can get back out there with Rebecca, I promise.
Jaime briefly considered defying both Will and Truewell, and just walking out there dripping wet and only wearing her towel. Will's imaginary reaction brought a slight smile to her face. "Fine, I'm ready," she said, shutting the tap off without looking.
Okay, the reason why we're here first, Truewell said. How bad is it?
"I've had worse," Jaime said. "And it's better than feeling fine when I'm not."
I'm glad to hear you like being off the controls, then, Truewell said. But you should be more careful, Jaime. You're still not completely healed.
"I'm getting pretty tired of hearing that. I feel much better - but everybody's treating me like glass. Ooh, Jaime, sit down, I'll do that for you, don't strain yourself, you should rest...you could hurt yourself lifting that remote..."
Truewell stiffled a laugh. What was he trying to watch?
"So You Think You Can Dance," Jaime said. "I can't wait until he gets his own TV again. Don't tell him I told you, please."
Your secrets are safe with me, Truewell said. Do you mind if we get down to business for a moment?
"I'll live," Jaime said. "The usual?"
Jaime sighed. "Hit me."
Any limb malfunctions?
Urges or heightened emotional states?
"No," Jaime said. "And 2."
Jaime, I'm recording this. Please wait until I ask the question.
On a scale of 0-10, how much pain are you in?
"2," Jaime said. "Wait, with the back?"
Yes, Truewell said. How painful was that?
"About a 4, I guess," Jaime said. "Like I said, I've had worse, but it snuck up on me. I lift the couch and I'm just about to stretch up when it hits."
Did you feel your back tighten or spasm?
"Yeah, but just for a moment, like I was lifting it after I had just finished a run or was lifting boxes in the back of the bar."
Okay. How are you feeling now? Is it still there?
"It's a little stiff now," Jaime said. She sat up experimentally in the bathtub; the pain didn't return. "But otherwise, I'm back to normal. Feeling a little sore all over, but I think it's getting better."
Good. And - there's the report. There were a few seconds of silence before Truewell spoke again. Do you want to talk about what happened at the call?
Jaime couldn't imagine squirming from a conversation until the agitation of the water surface showed her that she was actually doing it. "Another time," she said.
How about Rebecca, then? Truewell asked. I know she's on your mind.
"Yes, of course," Jaime said. "I don't like lying to her, and - that's really what it is, Ruth. I don't know if I can keep lying to her."
Do you always tell her the truth? About everything?
Even about what goes on between you and Will?
"Okay, maybe not everything everything," Jaime said. "And it's not like I keep a diary..."
See? Truewell said. This is exactly the same. There are some things that she doesn't need to know about.
"I'm not hiding how far things went with Will last night. I lost my legs and my arm, they've been replaced with robot limbs and now I'm some kind of secret agent for the government," Jaime said. "There's a difference."
There is a difference, yes, but it's the same idea. You're protecting her, Jaime. From things that she doesn't need to know about. Things that could hurt her.
"That's just an excuse," Jaime said. "I have told Becca everything important that's ever happened to me, hurtful, embarrassing, everything. I don't keep secrets from her. And now, this is the biggest thing to happen in my life in, well, ever - and I have to lie to her about it. I'm lying to her just walking in front of her now. Every time she sees me and I don't tell her, I'm lying. How the hell am I supposed to keep doing this?"
You do it because you have to. If you tell her about what we are doing, she'll be in danger.
"And what about the danger to me? When things go bad, when I have nobody else, she's there for me. It's just the two of us, and we've always had each other to lean on. I'm barely hanging on as it is, Ruth, and now I can't talk to her...I just have to tell her at some point. I can't hide this from her forever. It's impossible."
Jaime heard Truewell swallow nervously on the other end of the line. Jaime, I want you to know something, she said. Between the two of us, everything is safe to say, okay? I'm here to help you. But, please, for your own good, and for Rebecca's - don't tell anyone else.
"...okay," Jaime said quietly, "I won't, I'll try, but - how? How do you do it, Ruth? How does this not drive you crazy?"
I've spent my adult life working in places like Berkut. You get used to not telling things to people, for their own good. Jaime heard Truewell take a fresh breath. But you can make new friends in here. And those friends - they can save your life. Literally, sometimes. Just knowing someone else agrees with you about what you're doing can change everything, Jaime, and you might be surprised whom that could be.
There was silence on the line as Jaime thought about that. "Maybe," Jaime said, and paused again. "But Nathan's such a jerk," she said with a smile.
Truewell laughed softly. Okay, she said, maybe not Nathan. But there are others here at Berkut. He's not the only voice in your ear.
Jaime relaxed a little deeper into the water, her smile just an inch or so above the surface. "Yeah, I suppose," she said. "Thanks for listening, and - sorry for making your job so difficult."
I'm not doing this just for Berkut, Truewell said. You can call me any time, and I'll pick up or call you right back. I'm here for you, Jaime.
Jaime was quiet for a moment after that. "Thanks." She idly splashed around for a second. "Well. I've got a few more minutes before Will will let me out of here. What else do you need to cover?"
Nothing else. Papers shuffled around on Truewell's desk. Tell me about Rebecca's robot. You seem really proud of her.
"Oh, yeah," Jaime said. "I spent all of yesterday splicing wires for the sensors. Becca has this insane color code chart for every cable, and she said to me, 'No, no, Jaime, the yellow ones on top, and the brown ones go there', and..."
Jonas Bledsoe locked the door to his office and laid down on his couch. He was the kind of man who would stay in his office long into the night, as long as the job took, but he realized that he was too old to make a contest out of it. The couch gave his home away from home some desperately needed livability, and proved its valor whenever his back acted up. For a good long time, staying in shape had counteracted the obvious effects of aging, but even then he had noticed that he was getting slower and easier to tire. No more running around getting his hands dirty in the four corners of the world; other people did that for him now.
After a few minutes, Bledsoe opened his eyes. This one had gone from a laydown to a powernap, but he was okay with that, because it meant waking up with his body in a sleeping state. The best feeling in the world, as far as he was concerned, was the stretching after total relaxation, working his joints and feeling the power return to his limbs. Like working a kink out of the garden hose and suddenly getting full pressure again.
Reinvigorated, Bledsoe walked back around his desk and sat down. No alerts in the computer, but the four-hourly fractal intelligence update was due in half an hour. That would generate some work, at least. Still, there were no immediate fires to put out, so he decided to check how the work on the nanotech weapon captured from the warehouse was coming along. He picked up his phone and dialed down to the secure lab section. After a few rings, the phone picked up.
"Yo," the male voice on the other end answered. Bledsoe didn't recognize it, and so he pulled the profiles of the new workers onto his computer screen.
"This is Bledsoe," he said. "Who am I speaking to?"
"I'm Al, dude," the voice answered. "Cool place you got here."
Bledsoe pulled up the profile on his computer. Alfred Montano, mechatronics expert from CalSci. The stupid grin on the profile picture meshed nicely with the voice.
"I'm overjoyed you like the facilities," Bledsoe said, sounding distinctly underjoyed. "Now give me a progress report on your job, Mr. Montano."
"Harsh, dude," Al said, still in his stupid-grin voice. "I gotta say, we're all a little - you know? Not with it. Hang on, dude, I got Karl for you. Nice meeting you!"
"Do not announce me like that!" said another voice, older and fainter, and Bledsoe got a few seconds of various noises as the handset on the other side switched hands. "Yes, hello? I am speaking to Mr. Bledsoe?"
"The very same," Bledsoe said, switching the profile display. Karl Jaworski, DARPA's go-to expert for nanobiotechnology. "Professor Jaworski, I assume?"
"Is me, yes," Jaworski said. "Mr. Bledsoe, I - forgive manners, hello - Mr. Bledsoe, I cannot work like this. You must find a replacement. I am sorry."
"Professor Jaworski," Bledsoe said, feeling the patience being sucked out right through his ear. "What, exactly, is the problem?"
"I was not told that you want me to work on a chemical weapon," Jaworksi said, "but I say, good, let me look. Is nanotechnology, your...Mr. Kim, that is his name, yes?"
"Yes," Bledsoe said.
"That is what he says. Is nanotechnology. And he gives me a report from this Dr. Anthros, another of your people, and I have hundred questions and nobody knows anything down here. Where is this man, he is on vacation to a nice place? Your Mr. Kim - and I am sorry, I do not like talking like this, but he is useless, knows nothing about the weapon. Where do I start, Mr. Bledsoe? Where do I start? And another thing -"
"Let me stop you right there, Professor," Bledsoe said. "Dr. Anthros is not available at this time, but he is our foremost authority on the nanotechnology employed in the weapon. Everything we know is in his report. Anything that is not in this report is simply unknown at this time. That is why you were brought here. It is your job to complete the report, as quickly as possible. So I suggest you get to work."
"No, I cannot," Jaworski said. "I absolutely cannot, Mr. Bledsoe."
"What do you need?" Bledsoe asked. "Whatever you need, if it exists, we can have it here by tomorrow. Lab equipment, materials, I don't care what it is - but I need these results. Do you understand that?"
"I understand you perfectly," Jaworski said. "I am not being difficult - if I am, I am sorry, Mr. Bledsoe, I do not come here to annoy you, I hate when people do this with me, so I am sorry, again. But -" Jaworski took a breath - "I am not qualified. I do not understand what the molecular mechanism does, how this kurwa technology works. There are footnotes in this report that are like - doctoral thesis yet to be written. I look at it, and ask: what is happening here? I do not understand it."
"What do you understand, then?" Bledsoe asked.
Jaworksi sighed at the other end. "The bottom of the device, it contains many small tanks. Most are partially full of reactant, we identify phosphorous, fluorine, methanol, other precursors. But one tank is very special, very elaborate. I think it is - was intended to hold nanotechnology precursor - I call it, the backbone. If I was to build agent, I would start with backbone that self-assembles entire agent when exposed to proper conditions, so this is what I think was done. All tanks connect to reactor vessel with many valves for injecting of precursors at a correct time. Now, if we had sample of the backbone, I could maybe identify maker from chemical signature. All nanotechnology designers I know have very particular way of making backbones - I prefer to start with methylation reactions, far too energetic to have around -"
"Professor Jaworski," Bledsoe said, raising his voice just enough. "Can you, or can you not, identify this - 'backbone' from the agent itself?"
"No, no, backbone is fundamentally changed by process, reaction groups added and taken away many times. Impossible to determine after reaction has finished, and the backbone tank is completely clean, perhaps on purpose."
Bledsoe rubbed his eyes. "When will you know more about the device or the agent?"
"Is very difficult," Jaworski said. "Many new concepts, but I think the basic of it, maybe I can understand. If you can send more notes of Dr. Anthros, as much as you have, I will look at them, and maybe then I understand more."
"I'll have someone show you the electronic archive," Bledsoe sighed. "Is Major Walker there, too?"
"Yes, he is here," Jaworski said. "I will look at notes, we can start work next week, I think, Mr. Bledsoe. A good day."
Jonas Bledsoe's blood pressure leveled off in a region his doctor wouldn't like. Several sublevels deeper, the handset was duly handed to the third of the new researchers.
"Major Walker here, Sir," came a snappy report. Ross Walker, Major in the US Air Force and liason for Advanced Project Development at the Groom Lake base. Doctorate in Materials Engineering. "I am forced to agree with Professor Jaworski's assessment, Sir. We're out of our depth here."
"You're familiar with high-tech munitions, Major?" Bledsoe asked.
"Yes, Sir," Walker answered. "If it goes boom, I can tell you how it's built."
"Well?" Bledsoe said. "Tell me what you know."
"I consulted with one of your men, Lieutenant Jordan - he observed the dispersal mechanism in action. The mechanical half is simple enough, it works a lot like a cropduster. Well, except all the parts are custom, from the first servo to the last washer. Whoever built it didn't think to use standard piping, joints, valves, motors - anything, really. The main logic is confined to several printed circuit boards that also do not resemble any commercial off the shelf components I've ever seen. Not even the microcontrollers have product IDs. What we have here, Sir, is an act of God, a mechanism with no identifiable manufacturing chain. As I'm sure you can imagine, this will complicate any attempt to determine how it works or where it came from immensely."
"Major, in your opinion, why would someone design a weapon in this way?"
"First, to frustrate any attempt at tracing its origin, Sir," Walker said. "This is not cost-effective in the least, and the effort made to manufacture non-standard parts far exceeds that of procuring sensitive parts on the black market. There is no parts list, no serial numbers to trace on any of this."
"Because they can, Sir. Some of these components have details so fine and smooth that they could only have been made with some kind of nano-deposition process, and I don't know of any lab in the world that could turn out parts like this."
"You're working for one, Major," Bledsoe said. "And I know who has the other."
"Sir?" Walker asked.
"One of our - alumni," Bledsoe said. "The name's Sara Corvus."
Becca was still sitting on the floor of the living room, scanning the pages of straightened code governing her robot for bugs and improvements, when a pop-up announced the arrival of an eagerly anticipated email. Becca took a quick look around, then opened the email.
that makes this harder. If Bledsoe's already figured out who you are, this won't be safe much longer.
Don't freak out. If you change your routine, they'll know for sure you've seen them, and then the gloves come off.
I hate doing this, but in this situation, there's really no other way. We have to meet in person. I'm in the San Francisco area, but I'm ready to travel. I'm leaving the choice of meeting spot and time up to you. Look for a black windbreaker and a red ballcap. If you don't show within half an hour of the agreed time, I'm gone.
Again, don't freak out. They want you panicking and giving yourself away. I can help you, but you need to do what I tell you when I tell you.
Becca saw a shadow start to slide across her screen and snapped the netbook shut. She looked up and saw Will standing next to her, craning his neck in an attempt to see what was on the screen. "Do you mind?" she said, and narrowed her eyes at Will's intrusion. "A bit of privacy, maybe? Jeez."
"I'm...I didn't mean to, ah, startle you, Rebecca," Will said.
Becca read that as something closer to I dinnt mean to starrle you, and though she knew what he meant, she kept up the silent stare.
Will flipped through a series of possible ways what he just said could have been misinterpreted or been insulting, but after a moment, he remembered who he was talking to. "I didn't mean to frighten you, Rebecca," he said, his words dragged out into a mockery of enunciation supported by wild gestures. "I need your help to move the couch. So you can show me the robot. Okay?"
"I'm not retarded, you know, just deaf," Becca said. She put her netbook on the end table and stood up. "I wasn't born this way, either, so don't think I don't know how words are supposed to sound. I don't slur or stutter my words."
So much for 'nice', Will thought, but for Jaime's sake... "You're right, you speak very clearly," he said, still exaggerating his words a bit. "Jaime said you two work on it all the time. She is very proud of your work. I thought you should know."
Becca nodded, and took her hands off her hips. "Thanks, I guess," she said.
Will struggled to find a way to continue the brief moment of civility between himself and this strangely aggressive entity in front of him. "Yes, so...Jaime never told me how you lost your hearing. What happened?" Will felt his panic rise along with Becca's eyebrows. "If, ah, I'm sorry if this is too forward. I didn't mean to pry."
To Will's relief, Becca didn't start shouting or crying or tearing his face off. She just nodded. "I did something stupid when I was younger. I took a whole bottle of antibiotics at once because I was sick, and it killed the cells in my cochlea that pick up sound."
Will nodded. "Gentamicin, am I right? That is known for ototoxicity," he said, this time speaking too quickly for Becca to pick it up. "Have you considered getting cochlear implants? We're making great strides in technology, so you could have much of your hearing restored in a few months and -"
"Yeah, pass," Becca said. Will couldn't quite get used to the way she stared straight at his face when she talked to him. "First, we can't even come close to affording the surgery, and secondly, I don't want 'most' of my hearing back. I want all of it back. And I don't want to have some plastic thing sticking out of the side of my head so I can have some limited hearing in one ear. I read the journals that they have in the library, you know, so I'll wait until they sort out real ear-replacement implants in ten years."
Will smiled warmly. "The future's getting closer all the time, Rebecca. You'd be amazed what we can already do today."
Becca raised an eyebrow. "Yeah, I bet. For fifty grand or so. I'll wait until we can afford your future, Dr. Anthros."
After another pause that left Will with an intense urge to say something, Becca looked over to her robot, then back to Will. "So, robot?"
"You know, Rebecca, maybe we should wait for your big sister to get out of the bath," Will said, then started digging around in his pocket. Becca figured his cell phone had just gone off, and her suspicions were confirmed when he pulled a plastic slab out of his pants.
He turned to the side and started to whisper, but Becca could still read most of what he was saying. Andros near. No, I'm not busy. Yes, I can be somewhere private. Give me a minute. corvus? Yes, I will be there soon.
Will hung up the phone and smiled at Becca. "Yes, like I said, we should just be nice and wait for Jaime to finish up in the bathroom. I have got to take this phone call - you know how work is, don't you?"
"Yeah, sure, whatever," Becca said, and scooped up her netbook on her way down the hall to her room.
Jaime stood before Becca's room, clean and in fresh clothes, and fought her nerves. Her right hand hovered near the switch mounted next to the door, where a cable snaked unceremoniously through a small hole in the wall and into Becca's room. Jaime pressed the switch; inside Becca's room, an array of unobtrusive but clearly visible lights started flashing calmly. It was one of Becca's electronics projects, combined with Jaime's DIY handiwork skills, and it made for a decent enough way to knock on the door of a deaf girl's room. After a few seconds, the door opened a crack, and Becca peered through it, looking up to her big sister's face.
"Can I come in?" Jaime asked.
"Sure," Becca said, and opened the door the rest of the way. Jaime walked into the room as Becca hopped back onto her bed and cleared a space in her scattered drawings and printouts that she had spread over her covers. "What's up with Will?" she asked as she settled back against the headboard. "One second he's all interested in seeing my robot, the next you suddenly have to take a bath and you look like he's making you do it, and then he's trying to...bond with me or something."
"Becca, please," Jaime said. "Will is just...he worries a lot. But he's a nice guy, you know, down deep."
"Real deep, I'll bet," Becca said.
"I know you're not his biggest fan, but he really wants to make this work. Us, Becca, he wants us. And he really does want to see the robot, it's all he's been talking about since I told him we were working on it."
"Yeah, so we were gonna move the couch so we'd be ready when you got back, but he got a phone call - something important, he said - and he walked outside," Becca said. "Clearly he's all about us and the robot." She kept staring at Jaime's face for a second, waiting for her to say something. "So...what's up, sis? You look like you have something to tell me."
Jaime's eyes narrowed. "What do I look like when I have something to tell you?" she asked. "Do I make a face or something?"
Becca smiled. "Yeah, actually - your eyes, they're open a little more than usual, your cheekbones drop, and you keep on opening and closing your mouth like you want to say something but can't figure out how to start. Like this -" Becca said, then mimed opening and closing her mouth in the manner of a dignified aquarium fish. When her demonstration concluded, she bounced over next to her sister. "So, come on, tell me, sis. You can trust me with, whatever."
"Well," Jaime said, "I got this...this offer. From my boss, actually. You know, I told him about all the...stuff you do, with the robot - God, I must have told everyone by now, I'm really horrible about it! - and he made a suggestion. Now, Becca, I know you've got friends at your school, but - have you ever thought about going somewhere else? You know, like a private school for...talented people? One that actually has a robotics program you could join and kick some serious robotics ass in?"
"Why would I want to do that? I've got all I need here. Parts, a kickass computer to test on, and Kate's gonna start coming over after her summer math camp wraps up so we can work on her projects, too." Becca smiled again. "Besides, I couldn't work without you as my evil assistant, could I."
"Kate's coming over?" Jaime asked. "When were you going to tell me about that, Becca?"
"Uh, since when do I have to let you know when my best friend comes over?" Becca asked, furrowing her brow at Jaime. "You didn't have a problem with it during the school year."
"Yes, but we're...in a different situation now," Jaime said, and regretted it almost before she said it out loud. "I mean, financially. We have money. We can start thinking about your future."
"And my future's doing just fine, Jaime," Becca said. "My comp-sci professor friend down at CalSci said that if my robot is good enough, she might petition for me to get early entry on work merit." She sat at the edge of the bed next to Jaime. "So, forget about that - it's not that, right? What are you really worried about?"
"Well, Becca, you remember...last week? When I got mugged on the way to work?" Jaime tried not to blink. "I've been thinking, and, you know, it's cheap here, but - it's not exactly a safe neighborhood. And I guess I didn't worry about it before, we never had the money to do anything about it, but now we do and - and I guess I just don't ever want to get a phone call that something happened to you, on the way to school, or when you were hanging out with Kate, or just going out, or - I don't know. The point is, you could be somewhere - safer. That's what my boss thinks, too. One of his points, actually."
"God, Jaime, I'll be just fine. I know how to get around, and I have friends to hang out with. Buddy system. I'm safe." She looked at Jaime, eyebrows cocked. "What does this Bledsoe guy have to do with this, anyway? He's telling you a lot about how to run your life when you're supposed to be organizing his."
"He's not ordering me around," Jaime said, a little forceful at that. "He just...he made a suggestion. It made sense when he said it. And I've been thinking about it, if it would be better for you."
"No," Becca said. "It's not. I can't leave you alone, Jaime, all by yourself - not now. There's only one place I'm going to be, and that's right here. Okay?"
"Yes, okay," Jaime said, smiled and closed her eyes briefly. "Yes. You're right." She opened her eyes again. "You're right. Rebecca Louise Sommers, how did you get so smart?"
"Just my turn, I guess," Becca said with a smile, and bumped shoulders with Jaime. "Love ya, big sis."
"I love you, too," Jaime said, and something like an honest grin finally appeared on her face when she showed the corresponding hand sign. "Still not buying you a car, though."
Becca faked a shocked expression. "Jaime! I wouldn't dare to ask for something like that." Her expression gave way to a smile. "This time."
"And that's why I have to keep my eyes on you, little sister," Jaime said.
William Anthros exited Jaime's apartment building with an upturned collar on his coat and his right hand in the coat pocket, wrapped around his cellphone. He glanced once to the left, once to the right, then resumed walking, taking the direct route to his car - a Lexus IS F in a metallic black tone. He unlocked the car with the press of a button on the keyfob and walked around the back of the car as its turn signals flashed briefly. His left hand reached for the driver's door and opened it. He climbed into the car, brought his cellphone out of the pocket and closed the door behind him. The car's interior lights faded back into their "off" state while the phone paired itself to the car's onboard system. Will pressed a button on the car's steering wheel.
"Speak - command - now," a pleasant female voice answered.
"Dial Berkut," Will said.
"Dialing - Berkut," the female voice repeated.
The phone rolled through a small symphony of screeches and clacking sounds before finally settling on what resembled a dialtone. After a few rings, the call was answered.
"Bledsoe," Jonas Bledsoe said, by way of greeting. "Are you alone now, Anthros?"
"Please," Will said. "I was with Jaime's sister - she wasn't going hear anything. But I'm in my car now, like you wanted."
"Good," Bledsoe said. "Next question. Are you clean right now?"
"I sweep my car every week for bugs and transmitters, Mr. Bledsoe."
"I didn't ask if your damn car is clean, did I?" Bledsoe replied. "You, Anthros. Have you been drinking or raiding your chemistry shelf again?"
Will stared at his dashboard and fumed. "I'm not high, if that's what you're asking."
"You know exactly what I'm asking," Bledsoe said. "Stop trying to dodge me. Yes or no."
"I just told you that I wasn't high, goddammit!" Will shouted. "Sir."
"If your phone had a built-in drug tester I'd be telling you to piss on it right now," Bledsoe said calmly. "But I think we can move on."
"Good," Will said. "Now, if you're done insulting me, why are you interrupting my 'vacation'?"
"I'm pulling you off the bench, Anthros. Turns out I got problems and you're the best solution I have for the moment."
Will smiled. "Oh, do tell - what could you possibly need me for? Your so-called replacements not quite measuring up, are they?"
"They're having a little trouble getting started, and I don't have the time to waste," Bledsoe said. "Now, Anthros, when I sent you on vacation? Let's consider that...bankruptcy. I'm here to tell you there's a way to build credit. You go left when I say right, and you're straight back to nothing. Are we clear on that?"
"Sure. Just tell me what this problem that you just have to have me for is."
"I didn't hear a 'yes' and I didn't hear a 'Sir'," Bledsoe said. "Am I going deaf?"
"Yes, sir," Will said, throwing in a sarcastic salute. "So, what is the problem, exactly? I can be at Wolf Creek in an hour - less if 880 isn't backed up."
"Negative," Bledsoe said, "you're not coming within ten miles of this facility until you're officially back on the team. Get on your laptop and dial in - the team will tell you what they need."
"I'm sure they'll appreciate some more experienced aid," Will said, "Sir."
"Try not to fuck this up," Bledsoe replied. Then there was a click, and the line went dead for a moment.
"Call - terminated," the female voice said.
Will didn't move. After a few seconds of his hand on the wheel and steady breaths, he allowed himself a small feeling of triumph.
Across the bay in Alameda, a steel door slammed open in an abandoned warehouse, and a middle-aged man with a carefully groomed mustache, short black hair and a three-piece black suit burst through. Diego Valdez haphazardly bounced off a pile of rotting cardboard boxes and resumed running, arms flailing out in a successful bid not to slip and land on his teeth. The two men who poured out of the door behind him seemed to get all their shopping done at the army surplus store; they wore jump boots with frayed shoestrings, black cargo pants and blue one-size-fits-all bomber jackets. To their credit, that meant the pistols in their hands didn't look very out of place.
As Valdez stomped down the hallway, leaving a roostertail of scattered newspaper and discarded junk food wrappers in his wake, the gunmen fired after him, shattering squares of glass and shredding the peeling drywall in abandoned offices. Valdez screamed as the shards of broken glass blew out towards him and shielded his face with his Gieves & Hawkes jacket, cutting deep slashes in the fabric. Realizing that staying in front of the shooters would only lead to them getting their eye in, he swerved left down a stairwell. A stack of cardboard boxes filled with decaying reams of paper stood on the landing, and he pulled the boxes down the stairs behind him. One of them almost broke his ankle as it overtook him going down the stairs, but the adrenaline of actually being shot at let him swallow the pain and keep running.
The gunmen quickly followed him through the door, but found the boxes blocking their path.
"Go around! Go around!" one of them shouted to the other, and so they did, leaving Valdez just the barest moment to breathe out, grit his teeth and continue his escape. The fire exit in front of him was closed; with no other option, he threw his shoulder against the door, forcing it open and nearly ramming himself against the handrail behind it. He skipped down the small stairway to the alley beyond, then stopped and looked around, desperate to gain his bearings. The thugs announced themselves with more noise from a nearby door - another exit from the warehouse. That made Valdez's decision for him, and he ran down the alley in the direction that didn't take him past that door. The pain from his ankle rose again, but he couldn't slow down, not with their shouting behind him.
Then there was a BANG!, and soon another, bullets zipping past Valdez and not missing by much. The gunfire closing in on Valdez motivated him to run as fast as he could, and he slipped onto the main street behind a corner of early 20th century brickwork just in time to escape three bullets. Two blew chunks of masonry out of the corner, spraying the passersby and Valdez with ceramic dust; one traveled across the street and burst a barbershop's front window before finally stopping in the decorative wood paneling next to the "Employees Only" door. The barbershop's burglary alarm went off, and that was the right cue for the people on the streets to finally process the gunfire and start panicking.
Valdez was in the thick of it, just short of completely losing it himself, but through the people that blocked his way, the light crowd he was pushing through, he caught glimpses of his car. That was a goal, a destination, something to focus on in the final steps of running his gauntlet. With his left arm, he pushed a screaming young mother out of his way with all the consideration of an ice hockey body-check; his right hand was buried in his slacks, fumbling for the car keys. None of the faces looked familiar as he forced himself through the crowd. They barely looked human to him. He didn't have any empathy or finesse to spare. He had to get to the car, had to make it, and screw whoever he had to bash out of his way to do that.
He was twenty yards away from the corner when his pursuers cleared the alley. They, too, started to push through the crowd, the heavy thud of their boots catching up to Valdez. Valdez, finally so close to his car that he could almost smell the paintjob, forced himself through the gap between a man and a newspaper vending machine. That got him a tall caramel latté spilled over the back of his jacket, but Valdez powered through. His right hand clutched at the keyfob and his thumb hammered the button to unlock the doors. This made him a stationary target, and one of the pursuers raised his pistol, seeing an easy - or at least doable - shot to Valdez's back. He took a split second to aim, and then he fired once.
Valdez flinched down, an old woman behind him crumbled to the ground with a pool of blood seeping through the shoulder of her blouse, and the gunman brought his pistol back into position for a follow-up shot. Valdez threw a quick glance backward, and through the screaming, teeming crowd, his eyes met the gunman's for an instant. The door of Valdez's car finally popped open, and the terrified Spaniard jumped inside. The other pursuer all but jumped the gunman, grappled for the pistol and barely managed to yank it downward before the next shot rang out. This bullet skipped off the sidewalk, slammed through the sheet metal of a nearby panel van's passenger door and set off that van's alarm for bonus cacophony points. After a brief struggle, the gunman forced his partner off himself, but the chance was gone.
"Are you nuts?" the gunman shouted.
"You're nuts!" his partner answered, trying to outdo the alarms and the screaming crowd. To his credit, that seemed to work. "We need to get away - now!"
"What about -" the gunman started, then looked back to where his quarry had been.
Valdez's dark blue car backed up for a foot or two, but then peeled away from the curb with the horrible screech of too-slick tires faiing to find immediate purchase. That was followed by the lurch of a sudden gear change, and then the car picked up speed and raced down the road, fleeing the scene with little ceremony. The license plate was already too far away for either of the men to read, though not for lack of trying on the gunman's part. He looked back to his partner, and his free hand curled to a fist. Finally, reluctantly, he returned his weapon to the holster underneath his jacket.
"Come on," the other man said, "come on. Now." In the middle of the chaos, the two ran back into the alley they had come from. No sense sticking around for the cops.
Valdez ran the next red light in his car, going about 20 miles per hour over the speed limit and, indeed, any sensible inner-city speed. His car swerved out of its lane a few times while he endeavoured to fix his seatbelt, but finally he gave up and focused on driving. At the intersection after that, he slowed down, took a right and rejoined polite society in going with the flow of traffic. A single breath escaped his mouth. In an attempt to downshift, he felt a tugging pain in his right arm; a quick glance showed a bloody hole in his suit, with more blood dripping down onto the center console. He cursed to himself, but all things considered, it could have been worse. For now, he was still able to drive, although the post-adrenaline crash was already starting to set in. If he could get away, if people would stop trying to kill him for just a few minutes, maybe he could find a nice quiet alley. If he was really lucky, maybe he would manage to do something about his wound with the car's first aid kit before blacking out.
But Diego Valdez, Defense Attaché of the Spanish Embassy to the United States, had to acknowledge one fact: things didn't look so good for him.
Tradecraft Commentary: Evasion
It's in almost every espionage thriller ever made: the hero is chased by the bad guys and has to get away from his pursuers, evade their manhunt and lie low. But how does that work?
Let's start with the simplest scenario: you're literally running away from people chasing you. What you need to do is break contact, that is, disrupt the line of sight from the pursuer to you. There are multiple ways to break contact. You could simply outrun your pursuers, but that requires a substantial fitness gap, and if your pursuers are in a car, forget about it. You can try to outmaneuver them, that is, move in a way that they can't or aren't willing to follow. (Easier if they're in a car. If you're both on foot, it's stuntmen, traceurs and lunatics only, pretty much.) Or you can make a turn around a corner or run into a crowd for a brief break. If you can't break contact, you're doomed to be caught. Which is why it's silly to try to win a police chase: once the helicopters come, it's pretty much impossible to break contact. As long as they know where you are, they can keep chasing you, or move to cut you off.
Which brings us to the next step: escape the manhunt. Once you have broken contact, your pursuers will try to reestablish it. To do that, they will continue following the route they think you took, blockade alternative routes and then start searching the area they've blocked off. Your goal is to escape this search grid without being seen, which would start the whole chase over. One option is to take a route out of the area that isn't blockaded. It's rarely possible to block off every way out, and even then, setting up blockades takes time. Still, this requires either a lucky guess, some idea of which routes will be blocked, or a truly "creative" escape plan. Another option is to hide within the search grid. No canvass can truly check every hiding spot, but obviously a large enemy force searching a small area can be more thorough than a small force combing a large area. Hiding in the search grid is a gamble; if you're not found, your pursuers may break off the search on the assumption that you slipped out, and this can save you the trouble of finding a way past the perimeter. However, if you are found, you are now in an established perimeter, with all easy exits blocked off, and you've given your opponents time to rally and call in reinforcements. A final option is to break the blockade along one escape route. That is obviously a very risky strategy and establishes contact at that point, giving your pursuers an idea where you went, but can be worthwhile if the enemy is spread thin and can't immediately pursue you from there.
Once you have broken the perimeter, your best bet is distance, distance, distance. At this stage, your pursuers will likely cast a wider net, trying to block off major routes out of the area. The search grid will become wider and stretched thinner, especially since your pursuers must take your traveling speed into account and calculate a maximum distance you could have traveled from your last known position. The bigger this number, the better for your chances of escape. Take note, however, that traveling fast is by itself problematic. If you have a car, you are limited to roads, where vehicles might be stopped; going fast makes you stick out and may lead to a renewed pursuit. Trains, ships and airplanes all work according to plans and pre-set routes. Resource-heavy pursuers will try to lock down train stations, sea ports and airports. If this sounds hopeless, then consider that this stage is a game of resource allocation: no pursuer can be literally everywhere, and the wider you can stretch their resources, the bigger the holes in their search net will get.
All of this assumes that you're moving in an urban environment with lots of people in it. Out in Mother Nature, the situation becomes somewhat harder - the US military's SERE (Survive, Evade, Resist, Escape) School is supposed to teach its students how to escape a manhunt in a natural environment, but most learn quickly that evasion isn't easy. Moving through a natural environment such as a forest is slower going than through urban terrain, you will leave better tracks, and with no other people around, tactics such as using bloodhounds or a helicopter with a FLIR (Forward Looking InfraRed) camera become viable. The latter, in particular, is very hard to evade, but dogs are no walk in the park, either. On the upside, the terrain is harder to travel through for your pursuers, too, and there are few obvious travel routes to follow.
If you do manage to escape, congratulations! But don't use your own credit card to pay for that victory dinner, or you'll be running again soon...