Lynx’s heart rate spiked as it reacted to the horror that was this teleportation system. My medical system blinked at me, explaining its work despite me having no clue what any of it meant. Thankfully, it was enough to prevent her from vomiting; I’d heard stories that it happened a lot during early testing, before the pain chips.
The door to the telepod opened, revealing Abernathy and Patil. Two guards in the distinctive silver trench coats and armed with rifles flanked them. Behind them, four doctors and six nurses completed the entourage.
The guards didn’t have their weapons trained, but it was clear from their expressions that they were not amused. I couldn’t blame them; soldiers liked other soldiers following regulation. This was a lot of things, but it was not regulation.
Patil tried to say something, then started coughing. Abernathy’s face scrunched up in disgust as well. The medical doctors and soldiers were better at staying composed, but tear gas and sewage made for a combination few could be prepared for.
“Get her into decontamination and then medical,” Abernathy commanded while struggling not to choke on the smell.
“Her power is attacking me,” I said as the nurses approached. “I don’t think it comes with an off switch.” In the minute or so I carried her, I’d almost completely recharged and alarms told me my skin should have melted off. I wasn’t sure what it would do to an unshielded normal, but it couldn’t be good.
“Give the nurse your AP jacket,” Abernathy ordered one of the soldiers.
He pulled off the trenchoat for a large woman to put on while another two wheeled a gurney over to us.
“Okay, sir. You said she had a concussion?” The nurse seemed dubious of my opinion on the subject. Either she didn’t believe I had the training to diagnose, or thought the filth covering Lynx made a diagnosis impossible.
“She lost consciousness shortly after a strong blow to the head.” I left out that I was the cause of the blow, and that my diagnosis came from tech hooked up to a huge medical library. If she didn’t have clearance enough to know about my equipment, then I wouldn’t be the one to tell her.
She nodded in understanding; I didn’t need to be a doctor to have first responder training and simple caution. “Wait for Lisa to secure her head, then lower her gently onto the gurney. Will her power damage the equipment?”
“No, I don’t think so. It only seems to work on organics.” I followed their instructions, my medical computer confident that Lynx was out of immediate danger. Lisa, now wearing a rather heavy coat and gloves, started doing the initial checkup as they rushed her toward one of side doors.
A doctor approached me. “Sir? Are you okay?” He glanced at the sword skewered through my arm, then back at the other gurney.
“I’ll be fine for now.” With Lynx no longer adding to my battery, I was keenly aware of just how bad the damage was. The sword bisected most of the important tendons and blood flow to in right arm. My internal repair was doing what it could, and in fact was trying to cut through the metal. Given a few hours, it might even succeed, but I told it to stop. “I think a shower and change of clothes is my first priority. I can do it myself.”
“If you insist.” His body language screamed that he wanted to argue, but he didn’t. “I’m trusting you to know your limits.”
Ah, that’s the problem. “Thanks for your concern.” It had to be hard to be a doctor dealing with superhumans; all those years of med school training, only to be told that sometimes you have to ignore everything because Imbued don’t always follow the laws of physics, let alone medicine.
Doctor Patil looked like he wanted to say something, but I wanted to put the drama and possible court martial off as long as possible. “Hey, I think we have a long conversation ahead of us, but would you mind if we put it off until after I clean up?”
“Okay,” he managed to croak. Patil’s eyes were already watering, so it was little surprise he agreed.
I went straight for my own decontamination chamber. I grabbed a little shampoo bottle and a plastic bag with a biohazard sign, then stepped into the shower itself. It was a seven feet wide cylinder had nozzles in several spots, and a slow slope down to the middle of the room. White panels that loosely resembled feet were the only decoration in the otherwise drab concrete gray. The size surprised me, given we were in the old part of the base before all the Gadgeteer equipment was brought in.
I didn’t bother taking off my clothes before stepping onto the white foot-panels. Water blasted me from twelve sides with the intent of removing all possible chemicals as well as the first three layers of my skin.
Fifteen minutes of thorough scrubbing later, I was done putting off the inevitable. There was no chance I could get another shirt on, given the damn sword stuck through my arm. Unless. Can I do that?
I grabbed the replacement outfit, essentially hospital scrubs with disposable shoes. Beggars can’t be choosers.
I took the shirt, slid it over the sword, and sliced open the side. With more than a little help from the forcefield, I got my good arm into the good sleeve, and it wove the shirt back together. I don’t care how much the guy who planned this forcefield is making, he deserves more.
Sword still in place, I tossed my clothes in the recycler and left the decontamination chamber. Ugh, no wonder everyone was so eager to get out of here. A pair of workers were busy scrubbing down the teleport chamber, and concentrated bleach had claimed dominance in the Great Stench War.
One of the workers noticed me. “Doctor Patil said they’d be waiting in meeting room three.” His voice was muffled by the face mask, but still understandable.
I was about to ask how to find the room, but I already knew. It took me a moment to realize that the computer told me what I needed to know. “Thank you.”
I marched more than walked to the meeting hall, ready for the chewing out I so richly deserved. More than a few people stared at the sword sticking out of my arm, without so much as a drop of blood to indicate the wound was fresh. Their faces were a mix of concern, curiosity, fear and then shame when I caught them staring. My rep is now secure as the base’s resident badass. I pity my replacement.
I stepped inside the meeting room, where Doctor Patil, Professor Abernathy, and Integral were waiting.
“Mister Cross,” Patil started. Never a good sign when the boss calls you by your last name. “Before we get started, I just wanted to apologize for this mess.”
What. I kept the surprise off my face and out of my voice. “You have nothing to apologize for, sir.” Why is he the one apologizing? This mission went tits up because I misread the situation, and then I nearly killed someone.
“I knew our client was giving us incomplete information, and took the job anyway,” Patil confessed. “I thought they didn’t know much more, and our Espers agreed.” Abernathy flinched, as if she was accused of doing something wrong despite Patil blaming himself. “I never should have accepted.”
Fuck, we’re all blaming ourselves. Except perhaps Integral, who was hard to read behind the armor. His attention seemed to be focused on the damage to my arm.
I took a breath, thanking my military training for teaching leadership in an emergency. “The client, right.” There’s something fishy about this situation. “I take it they’re high up in the Canadian government? High enough to have the legal authority to request this mission?”
I could see the concern on Patil’s face; he wanted to give me more information, but wasn’t sure he should. Instead of waiting for him to decide, I continued. “They set us up to fail. Are you sure they weren’t frauds of some sort?”
“I verified it myself,” Professor Abernathy said. “Everything was as legitimate as a mission like this one can be. They explained the situation, told us where to find the target, and my power confirmed they were telling the truth. My power and all other information says they are who they claim to be.”
Wonderful. “Then they had to know about the bait and switch. Do they realize just how significant our organization is?”
Doctor Patil shook his head. “No.” He hesitated for a moment. “Maybe. They shouldn’t, but… We’re thought to be part of a successful Imbued private investigations firm called Altar. The firm is a real company that does real work, with roughly ten years of history behind it.”
“Including working for you.” It wasn’t a question; this resource demonstrated Patil’s reach better than the moon base ever could. Operations in multiple countries, with layers of shell companies to hide behind, that was a long term investment in the project. Still, there had to be Imbued out there who would see through the shell, and I’d seen enough of Canada’s work in the Gulf War to respect their Intel department. “They know who we are.”
Patil looked over at Abernathy. “How much of your power do you still have available?”
Professor Abernathy took a breath and closed her eyes. “They have a 67% Esper Value on us. They only suspect, they don’t have proof. But it’s way too close for comfort. We’re going to have to drop the contract before we tip what’s left of our hand.”
Doctor Patil sighed, but his heartrate was climbing; he was not accustomed to this type of work. Professor Abernathy on the other hand had done this before. No surprise; she had the sort of power that meant she could walk up to any Intel department and write her own check. What they both had in common was frustration at how this mission turned out, and how much it cost them both short and long term.
She’s right, we got burned and need to withdraw. Every part of my training screamed that this was a compromised mission. Even as my thoughts ran down a categorized list of reasons we should leave, I thought of the reasons we should stay. A ten year old bridge America had to gather Intel on Canada would be burned in such a way that might cause relations between the countries to suffer and would certainly leave a blind spot.
Most important: there were two women put into comas over this mess; one of which was by my hand. No matter what happened, we’d still need to do something about Lynx before this mission was over, whether we succeed or not. “Not necessarily.”
That got everyone’s attention; even Integral, who I was convinced was using his systems to read my body’s diagnostics at the meeting.
“You have a plan?” Patil sounded both eager and afraid.
“More like a tactic, at the moment.” Even as I said it, my mind raced through dozens of possibilities. “Have you ever heard of taking refuge in audacity?” The combination of worried frown and hesitant smile indicated that Abernathy had.
“I’m afraid I haven’t,” Doctor Patil admitted.
“It means to do something so absurd that people let you get away with it simply because they can’t believe it’s happening.” In theory, this is a double blind undercover operation, part of why this is being done by a civilian contractor. Plausible Deniability. “If we pull out now, they’ll know we’re part of a larger organization.” Not unlike gang initiations that require the initiate to commit a major crime so they can weed out undercover cops. “So instead of pulling out, we do the exact opposite. Something they’d never expect a government operative to do.”
No one said anything, expecting me to continue my train of thought without prompting. In reality, I was still buying time to justify what I wanted to happen in the first place. The broad strokes of the plan had come together in my head, and now it was just a matter of handling the proverbial devil. “First of all, I assume you have a way to contact the client. You need to find someone who’s very good at yelling, then have them call your client and hurl profanities and threaten to sue and take all this to the press.”
Professor Abernathy’s frown hadn’t left. “They’ll know it’s a bluff. Even if our cover story were real, we couldn’t afford to pull a stunt like that; it goes beyond career suicide and into literal suicide. Following through would be blatant espionage.”
“Well, blatant espionage is audacious, but this just the first step,” I led them down my narrative. “Then, when they’re convinced it’s a bluff, you demand they pay you five times as much, or we quit the job.”
Abernathy’s jaw hung open while she flexed her hand, looking for something to say. She then set her hand back down on the table. “That might actually be crazy enough to work. We look like unhappy contractors looking for cash, and they shoot us down so we walk. What happens if they call that bluff?”
“It’s not a bluff.” For someone who supposedly has perfect human intelligence, I’m a god damn moron. “I think they want me back. They couldn’t know I would be able to escape the city so fast. They wanted me to stay in, for some reason, and my escape will mess with whatever their plans were. They need me to walk back into the trap, and that means we can set our own trap with me as the bait.”
“You’d be okay with that?” Patil asked. “Using yourself as bait?” He sounded horrified, like he’d never before faced a situation with sacrificial pawns. The cynic in me wondered how the man got so high up the corporate ladder with this much of his conscience intact.
I held up my damaged arm as my answer to his question. “During special training, my squad had to fight our way through a simulated enemy environment, often entering melee with two or three opponents at once. The instructor said that if you couldn’t win, then you should at least take out as many of them as possible so the guy behind you had a better chance.”
I left out the part where the instructors waited until after a soldier was declared down to give him that pearl of wisdom; and that they had to make my fight ten on one to do it to me. Neither detail seemed relevant to the story.
“And that’s what refuge in audacity means?” Doctor Patil’s voice carried the tone of a man who just watched shock, reverence and disgust experience a three way collision.
“No. That just puts us on audacity’s front porch.” I brought my arm back down. “The next part of the plan is where we kick the door down and walk inside.”