A/N This story is turning into something of an ensemble piece. Chuck has that effect on people.
"No outside for you!"
"Don't let it stop you."
"You get us those sensors, we'll find you the building."
"Now we are going to…pick your brains."
YOU GAVE THEM THE LIST?
"The physical stuff? Yeah."
GOOD. THAT SHOULD HELP THEM NARROW IT DOWN A BIT.
"I heard they were already down to three."
GOOD. ARE YOU DONE?
"Yes." Manoosh put down his soldering iron. "Ready to test."
I'LL LIGHT UP ONE PANEL.
That wasn't the way the Intersect Room was supposed to work. "You can do that?"
The meter on the cobbled together sensor jumped.
THE ONLY PERSON IN THAT ROOM MORE THAN ME IS CHUCK.
Manoosh smiled as the signal zeroed. One panel, even next door, should be nothing compared to a room full of them, no matter how deep they buried it. "Let's get started on the second."
"YOU DO THAT ONE. I HAVE OTHER THINGS I NEED TO DO.
"Gentlemen, Agent Carmichael, we've narrowed the number of possible sites down to three," said Agent Shaw. "Given standard Ring practices, this is the minimum number I would expect."
"Meaning what?" asked Casey.
"All major Ring operations must be mutually supporting. Every project has to plug into at least two other projects."
"So they'll have two other projects beyond this one?" Sarah sent Casey a troubled look.
"Yes, but not to the same extent as the main one, which is where they'll take Agent Carmichael."
Casey nodded, and uncovered a tray with three cobbled-together Home Science Fair rejects on it. "Our tech resource made three sensors, we'll split into three teams, the Lensmen, Agent Carmichael, and me."
"I should come, Agent Carmichael is injured," said Shaw.
Casey grunted a negative. "We need you here, in case we're wrong and none of this pans out."
"In that case Charles Carmichael is already–" he noticed Sarah stiffen "-lost to us."
"Fine, you go with Sarah, then." Casey sighed in resignation. "Grimes, you're with me. Tech questions on the sensors, our guy is standing by. Channel three has been cleared for our use. Any questions?"
"What exactly are you planning on doing to me, anyway?"
Charles Carmichael did his best to observe what they were doing to and around him, in the little room that looked nothing at all like an Intersect room. It was his duty, as a spy, to have some actionable intel in case he should survive to report it. So far all he knew was that the table had a long slot-like hole down the middle of it, and the lights were very bright. The clamp around his neck limited the range of motion of his head, though, and when they strapped his forehead down he had none at all.
"What, the clamp isn't enough?"
The man who removed the clamp made an imperative gesture, and an underling strapped Charles' head to the table a second time, between his teeth. The overling smirked at his captive's unwilling silence. "Inform Leader that we are ready."
A screen lit up, outside Charles' range of vision. "I am well aware of your state of readiness," said their Leader, in a cold, robotic voice.
If the man was surprised that he'd been under observation it didn't show. "Of course you are, Leader–" a second screen lit "-Five, and Leader," continued the head man smoothly. "You honor us."
"You bore me," said Leader's voice, different somehow from Five's. "Is he ready? Your notes indicated the table was to be inverted."
"We are ready to begin the preparations, Leader," said the scientist in charge, pleased that Leader had read his papers. "Leader Five desired to witness the whole of the procedure."
At a gesture, the table flipped over, and Charles was staring at the floor as somebody, most likely not the head man, sliced through his shirt, pulling the rags from him. Something cold and metal was laid along his back, on either side of his spine.
"What are you doing?" said Leader's voice behind him.
"We are inserting earplugs," said the scientist, also behind him. "This part of the procedure will be very painful as we insert the sensors into his spine, and we don't dare get distracted once we begin. This is delicate work."
"Under computer control," said Five. "Take them out."
"Do we have a second test subject no one has told me about, Leader Five?"
Leader somehow made even a computer voice sound amused. "Your point is well taken. Continue."
"Ready the pneumatic injectors," said the scientist, and something Charles couldn't see hissed ominously. "We begin."
Shaw held Sarah back until everyone else had left for their assigned targets. "You shouldn't be going on this mission, and you know it."
She bristled. "You think I should just sit back and let someone else bring my husband home to me?"
"Yes, I do," he replied, unaffected. "You're wounded, in body and soul. No one knows that better than I do."
Suddenly she saw herself in him, five years down the road in a world without Chuck. The very stuff of horror, terrifying and repulsive at the same time. He hadn't survived his wife after all, just…continued.
The image only stiffened her resolve. "Get out of my way, Shaw," said Sarah, pushing him to one side. She realized her mistake as she felt the prick of the needle. He caught her as she collapsed. "Wh—what…?" She couldn't finish the sentence, she had no strength.
"If you'd been thinking clearly you never would have done that." He lifted her up and laid her down on a cot in the room next door. "It's only temporary, it'll wear off soon. I'll bring him back to you, I swear it on Eve's grave."
"Don't worry," said Shaw, as he left her behind. I need him too.
"Interesting," said Leader Five.
"Very," said Leader. "I thought you said the process would be painful."
The scientist removed his ear plugs. "It should have been, sir. We expected it based on observations of our experimental animals, as well as numerous spinal procedures conducted on humans."
They rotated the table, bringing the victim's slack face into view. They removed the strap from between his teeth. The doctor peeled back an eyelid, shining a light into the eye. The pupil constricted but otherwise the eye didn't move.
"Is this an Intersect skill?"
"Going into a vegetative state at will would be a useful ability for an agent in the field."
Suddenly the victim's eyes sprang open, and he gasped, choking on his own spit. "What the hell just happened to me?" shrieked Chuck, straining against the restraints Charles Carmichael couldn't escape from.
"We just inserted several hundred microfiber sensors into your spinal column simultaneously, Agent Carmichael," said Leader. "You seem to have missed it."
"What? Who-?" Chuck stared at the screen. "I really hope you're auditioning for the new Star Wars movie."
"Interesting choice of last words."
"Last words?" Chuck was freaking out, hyperventilating. "What do you mean, last words?"
"We're about to copy the Intersect out of your brain, Agent Carmichael. The process hasn't been beta-tested, I'm afraid."
"My brain? You can't copy my brain, I'm using it!"
"Thus, 'last words.'" Leader dismissed Chuck from his attention. "Continue with the operation."
"Shut him down," said Leader Five. "Shut him all the way down."
The doctor brought up something that looked an awful lot like a gun with a needle on it. Chuck shut his eyes so he wouldn't see it, but that didn't help when it pressed against the back of his neck.
"You may fire when ready."
Chuck's eyes widened and he screamed his last word: "Sarah!"
Sarah Bartowski threw herself off the cot, her gross motor skills returning as Agent Shaw had promised. Too slowly, far too slowly. Could barely stand, barely walk. Couldn't run, couldn't drive, couldn't race to her husband's side or slaughter Daniel Shaw or any of the things she no longer had time to do. All she wanted was the rest of time by Chuck's side, was that too much to ask?
She was done asking.
Her hand fumbled with the door, trying to open it, and she tried to summon some rage, some fire, but rage was a thing of the body and her body wasn't working right now. All she had was her will, her need for her husband coupled with inflexible purpose. She knew what she had to do and she did it.
The door gave way before her.
Her bag pulled her sideways but by bracing herself against the wall she could stagger down the corridor. The heavy security door opened itself at her touch, and she had only to wait, braced against the panel, until the electrons in the wires caught up with her desperate need.
Carina rose to her feet as Sarah lurched into view. "What the hell happened to you?"
Sarah slapped at the lock and it opened. Casey couldn't lock everyone out forever, in case of emergency. This counted. She held out her bag and toppled into Carina's arms. "You. Drive."
Shaw's Tesla spun into the parking lot of his designated target building precisely on schedule. Channel three was on speaker, allowing him to listen to his comrades as they performed their own searches.
"This is unit one," said one of the Lensmen. They'd gotten to their target first and had claimed the designation. "Our sensor shows no readings at all. Is it supposed to do that?"
A voice Shaw didn't recognize answered, "Yes. The emissions we're tracking are very specific. Even if there is a facility beneath you, if it doesn't have this equipment it won't show up."
"I'm getting a reading of zero point two," said Casey. "Is this our lab?"
"It's a lab," said the tech guy. "I don't want to commit until we hear from your other team."
"This is Shaw. I flipped the switch and turned the dial, but the light didn't come on. I don't think I'm active."
"No, you turn the dial, then flip the switch."
"Oh." Shaw reversed his actions, then proceeded as instructed. "I'm getting a one point two reading."
"They're in business!"
The Ring. Carmichael. And if he was right, the Leader himself. All right here. "I'm not waiting, gentlemen." He got out of the car, gun in hand.
"Shaw, wait for backup!" No response. "Shaw!" Casey burned rubber getting his Crown Vic to move as fast as he wanted it to. "Dammit! And here I thought he'd be good for holding Sarah back."
"Uh, Casey," said Morgan, holding on to his seat for dear life, "I didn't hear 'we', I heard 'I'."
"Channel…three," muttered Sarah, her fingers still too numb to do what she needed them to do.
Carina took the phone and pressed the right button.
Morgan's voice erupted from the tiny speaker. "-rah? Are you there? Agent Carmichael, do you copy?"
"This is Agent Carmichael."
"Thank God. Where are you?"
"Shaw drugged me. I'm going after him in my Porsche."
"You're driving your Porsche drugged?"
"No, Carina's driving."
"You're letting Carina drive your Porsche? You must be drugged—Hey!" Suddenly Morgan turned into Casey. "Sarah, Shaw's at the target site. We're all on the way but you're closest."
"Got it, Casey." She looked at the dial, showing ninety but it felt like thirty. "Why aren't we going faster?"
"You didn't ask," said Carina, pressing her foot down.
Shaw approached the soda machine with some degree of contempt. Such an antiquated system. He pressed the buttons in the right sequence, bracing himself as the elevator dropped.
At the bottom, automatic weapons fire shattered the front of the machine, then stopped when the shooters saw no target. Shaw jumped from the top of the machine, shooting at the guards as he dropped. Two down, and now he had a machine gun.
You killed my wife.
He pulled out his phone, activated the tracking app. Here inside the base, he should be able to find Carmichael easily.
"General, is it possible we can take out the building with an air strike?"
"Inside city limits? Are you out of your mind?"
"But Shaw's alone."
"Shaw was the best, once. We'll just have to pray that he still is."
Down three levels, and Daniel Shaw was beginning to get tired. Must have been the blood loss. Another junction. He felt inside his jacket for another flash-bang, found one left, and a bunch of empty rings on his vest. He threw it high, bouncing it off the walls above what they were going to be looking at. He slid up to the corner, expending this gun's last bullets without aiming as the grenade went off. He looked around the corner at ground level.
Civilians. Scientists. What were they still doing here, didn't they hear the alarms?
He ran up to the writhing figures. One guard. He took the gun and killed the bearer. Then he looked at the rest. Earplugs?
Whatever. According to the app, Charles Carmichael was…through that door!
The lab complex was abandoned, furniture overturned as the occupants scrambled to get out. Shaw ran from room to room, following the power lines and other signs of increasing electronic activity to—Good God.
Chuck hung suspended from a table, unconscious. Blood dripped from his sides to pool on the floor.
Chuck? Chuck…Carmichael. Not traumatized, not a savant. Agent Carmichael's husband, inside a cover, inside a cover. Well played.
Light shimmered. "Agent Shaw, so glad you could join us."
Shaw fired a burst at the cloaked figure- You gave the order-but it didn't fall.
"You don't really think I'd be anyplace likely to be attacked by you, do you?"
"It was worth a shot."
"You took several, in fact."
"Why are you here?" Shaw turned to the machine pressed up against Chuck's exposed back, looking for a way to get him off it, or it off him.
"I want to thank you, Daniel."
Air hoses? "For what?"
"In your noble and highly predictable attempt to save Charles Carmichael, all you've really accomplished is the delivery of yourself into my hands."
Shaw pulled off a hose, raised a brow at the hiss of air. "Your holographic hands."
Leader shrugged. "It's a metaphor."
"What do you need with me? Carmichael is worth ten of me." He looked for the main air feed.
"I don't really need Carmichael, I just need what makes Carmichael special, and I have that. For the next phase we need a test subject. And here you are."
He sliced the tubes, and the machine let go of Chuck's back. "Help the people who killed my wife? I'd rather die."
"I'm sure you would, Daniel, either during or after your vengeance. This is neither."
"Carmichael will avenge us both."
"You have to save him first."
Shaw fired three shots, one for each projector in the holographic display, and Leader vanished. "I'll do that."
Leader stepped back, quite satisfied, and turned to a minion. "Let me know when he reaches the top level."
Daniel Shaw worked quickly, freeing Chuck from the restraints, wrapping his back so he didn't bleed out. After a quick reconnaissance, he found the self-destruct, but it had no timer. He went back to Chuck, and lifted him into a fireman's carry, for the long trek back to the top level, and the elevator.
The Porsche pulled into the lot, slamming to a stop next to Shaw's Tesla. Carina shut off the engine and handed Sarah the keys. Sarah got out and ran to the door, as Casey's Crown Vic turned into the lot behind her.
Shaw almost dropped Chuck's limp form onto the elevator platform. Once freed of his burden, he staggered back down the hall, towards the security station where the self-destruct would be. This one had a timer, and Daniel Shaw pressed the activation button. Nothing happened.
"They're all dummies, except for the one you found down below," said Leader, shimmering into the air next to him. "The only safe place to put one, where you're at the bottom of a well."
Shaw smiled his plastic smile. "Well played."
"My men are on their way, Daniel. Surrender quietly and they'll even let you press the button on the way out, if you like."
"What of him? We had to shut his brain down to make our copy, and you invaded and killed our surgical team before they could start it back up again. Too bad."
Daniel Shaw sat at the security station and logged on.
"What are you doing?"
Shaw ignored the question.
"You can't send a message out of here on that computer, Daniel. Nothing goes outside this facility."
"I know," said Shaw. "But everything goes inside it. Have you ever heard of Remote Desktop?" He clicked the mouse once, then ran through Leader's holographic body for the elevator.
Three levels below, the CD tray ejected from the side of a laptop, carefully placed on a high shelf. Next to the laptop, balanced precariously on the edge of the shelf, was a glass paperweight. On the table below the shelf was the self-destruct button, the only one that worked.
With no timer.
Shaw was on the platform when the first charges blew, vaporizing the team sent to collect him. He was entering the code when the second level charges blew. The elevator had risen into the shaft when the third level charges blew, the expanding gasses of the explosion sending the platform up like a bullet in a very large barrel, smashing Shaw's body to the ground.
The ground shook slightly, not enough to knock anyone from their feet, but Sarah fell to her knees anyway. They watched as the dust rose before them.
Shaw struggled to get Chuck's body up, his knee in flaming agony from the impact with the floor, his shoulder weak from the one round that hit him down below. He looked, watching the square of light grow.
Shaw jumped as the platform cleared the shaft, adding yet more to his list of pains as their two bodies rolled across the trembling floor.
Morgan was all for racing to their assistance, but Casey held him back. "No, you idiot, look at the floor! The whole thing could cave in any second."
Shaw knew this, heaved himself to his feet, and…his knee didn't quite work. He couldn't run, could barely stand, but he forced himself forward in a strange, agonized hop. Five feet. Ten feet.
He felt it, they saw it, as the floor began to give way. Shaw fell to his knees, throwing Chuck over the remaining distance with the last of his strength, all Chuck's friends scrambling to grab hold. Please—
Casey grabbed the body, Morgan caught a leg, Sarah cradled his head as they all fell to the ground under the force of the impact. They looked up, to find themselves kneeling on the edge of a pit.
A/N2 I seem to have combined American Hero with Other Guy, after a fashion. I'll have to see what I can do about that.