Sabotage Derailed

The console spat out a stream of words and numbers. 23 studied them, muttering under his breath. Valdoon hovered over his shoulder and waited. When 23 stopped muttering, Valdoon asked, "Well?"

A shrug was at first his only answer. Then 23 spoke more clearly, "The diagnostics read clear. We're going to have to have a mole go through the whole system."

Valdoon stifled a groan. "23, do you know how much that costs? Our budget doesn't cover it."

"Then we'll have to live with bad air and a noisy fan." Brown eyes turned from the console to the Colonel, with a mischievous glint in them. "We've had this problem for months. Does your sudden urge to clean up the area have anything to do with the Diplomatic Tour that's going to come through in a week?"

If anything, Valdoon's face turned glummer. "They picked Haz Lib One to review."

23 stifled a laugh, "It's suppose to be an honor."

Valdoon grinned back at him, "Good. Then you're delegated as trouble-shooting coordinator. Anything here needs fixing -- you are to find someone to take care of it. I'll ask the moles for a list." He turned away and started cheerfully whistling as 23 stared in shock at him. As Valdoon strolled off, he stopped whistling as he recognized the tune. He muttered under his breath, "Damn those Twins!"

As soon as the Colonel had gotten out of range, Rhin slipped over to stand next to 23, "I think we're corrupting him. I swear I just heard him whistling 'The Scotsman'."

23 buried his head in his hands in mock despair. "Who cares. I just got the world dumped on my shoulders!"

The glint in Rhin's eyes grew brighter, "Well, you are suppose to be our second-in-command." Despite her unsympathetic words, she put her hands on his shoulders and started giving him a gentle neck rub. Shamelessly taking advantage of it, 23 let his head roll forward and tried to relax his muscles. Rhiannon grinned, but put careful work in finding the tense spots. "So," she continued, "what is it this time?"

23's words came out in a mumble, and Rhin transferred her work to his shoulders. The next try at communication came out clearer. "Specifically, I have to get somebody in to figure out what's wrong with the air circulator -- under budget!"

"Nothing easier."

Twisting out of her grip to turn and face her, 23 almost pulled a muscle in his haste. "What?"

Rhin scowled at him for messing up her work, but gave it up as a lost cause and clarified her statement. "Jacine's staying at Tam's this week, working on that medical resonance they're trying to find spare parts for. I'm sure if you asked her, she wouldn't mind coming over and taking a quick look." She quirked an eyebrow at him, "How come you didn’t know that?"

23 laughed, "You know Jas. But she’ll do it – I’ll go get clearence for her." He got up, suddenly over-towering Rhin by at least a foot, which didn't disconcert her, but always surprised him, and headed for Valdoon's Command Post.

Jacine strolled next to 23, letting her eyes wander over all the equipment in the Haz Lib section of the RCF Military Sector. With professional horror, she shuddered at the age of some of it. But repair and new acquisitions weren't so important in the RCF budget. Jacine realized that, and wished again that she lived in an age where technology wasn't so haphazard or precious. So much could not be replaced. As she always did, she mourned ideas lost in the cataclysms.

Next to her, 23 talked on, explaining the problems as he understood them. He only kept half his mind on the subject as he watched Jacine -- he hadn't seen her for months. 23 figured she was probably much the same, but Jacine in person was so much more vibrant and alive than any memory of her, that he couldn't help being happy. Her hair had grown longer. 23 grinned at that -- back when they'd first met, she'd kept it short, obstinately because she was always getting it caught in things. When he got to know her better, he'd teased her a few times about growing it out. Apparently, she'd listen to him. Her limp seemed to be worse than usual and 23 observed that Jacine had locked the knee servos straight before she'd come over. He decided to ask her about that later. Right now, he really should be concentrating on the job.

Jacine paid only slight attention to 23's explanations, getting the gist of what he was saying, but preferring to make her own diagnostics and conclusions. The first thing she'd done was check the computer programs that performed the electronic diagnostics. But 23 was correct on that, they read perfectly clean. Next, she checked the air ducts visually with the scanners. A quick run showed no obvious faults. Currently, they were walking from air port to air port, as she checked the fans and guards. If all those proved clear, the next step was to check the other end of the line. But the problem sounded like a simple fan crack. That would produce the sounds, which would be amplified by the resonance inside the ducts. The smell could be a few different things, but she was betting on grease burn as the fan overheated trying to cope with the same speed at less than optimal performance. What was causing the problem with the diagnostics, she'd find out when she saw it.

"Hand me the lock wrench." The voice echoed out the air shaft.

23 watched a hand appear near the two boots sticking out the end of the shaft and passed the appropriate tool to Jacine. Nervously, he glanced down the scaffolding at the 20 meter drop below them. The problem would have to be in the air duct in the hangar bay! Any of the others, we could have reached with a ladder, but no..., it has to be this one.

"Gees. Your maintenance people don't get to these much, do they?" The right boot disappeared into the shaft as Jacine squirmed around trying to get a good grip on the bolts. "Of course, I don't entirely blame them for not wanting to come up here, but don't they realize that it just makes the problems worse?"

23 glanced down again at the new tone in her voice. So, she's not so confident about the drop as she appeared. I'm getting to know you, Jacine. Little by little. He smiled at the thought.

A violent fit of coughing preceded Jacine's reappearance out the shaft. She slid out quickly and let 23 steady her as she tore off her goggles and tried to clear her throat. Her entire upper body was covered in reddish-brown flakes, and it was throughout her hair as well. 23 dusted some of it off, as he asked, though the answer was obvious, "Rust?"

"Bat's Breath, yes!" Jacine mopped her eyes one more time, then reaffixed her goggles and, holding the wrench as if a weapon, headed back into the air shaft. This time, the next sound that came out was a happy, "Got it!", followed by, "Now that is a fan crack!" She passed the defective fan back to 23, and redirected the light to the interior. Squirming to get her head and arms inside the duct, her left leg spasmed with pain at the twist. Jacine bit back a cry before it escaped her lips. But she had to take off her goggles again as her eyes teared at the pain. When her eyes focused again, they were looking at a jagged weld seam on one of the metal panels. "Hello. That's not a regulation weld!" Moving the light along it, she criticized every inch of it, "Too deep here, too shallow there. Didn't have the gases mixed correctly in this spot. What'd they do here, break for lunch before coming back? And haven't they ever hear of oscillation?" Jacine muttered improvisations against people who performed sloppy work. Sliding back out to the scaffolding, she announced, "It'll have to come out." Bending down to her tool box, she retrieved her oxy-acetylene torch and a welding/cutting face guard. She exchanged her durable work gloves for some even more durable, and lengthy, leather welding gloves. Then she moved back inside.

Watching from the outside, 23 felt nervous as the sparks showed the interior of the shaft, all except for Jacine's arms and most of her head which were inside the side duct. Now I wish I hadn't persuaded her to start letting her hair grow long! He glanced down again and noted the people who were stopping by to glance up at the work. The sound of flame cutting metal faded, and Jacine reappeared with a curved panel roughly two feet by one foot. The panel glowed red around the edges and Jacine was holding it carefully. She placed it on the scaffold floor and warned him not to touch it. 23 looked at her with raised eyebrows.

Jacine shrugged, "You never know with some people. I mean it seems pretty darn obvious, but I've known a few people... But you're right, you're not most people." Her eyes glinted with affection and slight sarcasm at herself, as she grinned at him, thinking of the person she knew him to be. Her heart gave an abrupt thump as she looked at him, as she rarely did. Not now, you silly idiot. But he's so... Jacine floundered searching for a word for her thoughts, then derailed her tangent and got back to the original line, "Sorry. Automatic reflex." Taking off the face guard and the heavy gloves, she crawled back into the tube.

23 watched her disappear again, a frown on his face. I didn't see what I thought I saw in her eyes, did I? Blast that face guard! The thought that Jas might like him as more than a friend wasn't a new idea for him, but he kept looking for more evidence. He knew his own thoughts on the subject, but from most of what he'd seen of Jacine, she reacted to him just the same as she did to Tamlynn. As a good friend.

"23, come and take a look at your problem diagnostics."

Jacine's voice startled 23 out of his contemplation, and he glanced inside the shaft. There wasn't much room in there... The black boots disappeared from the edge completely as Jacine squirmed around to go further back into the shaft so he could come in and look at the duct. Taking a breath, he crawled in.

Brown eyes glowed various colors as 23 moved in. Jacine watched them glitter with reflected points of light. She reflected that he probably couldn't see her at all since the light was attached above the panel in the duct. When he got close enough, she touched him on the arm and moved a little forward herself to show him the circuits above them.

23 sucked in his breath. He borrowed an expression from Jacine, "Feldercarb! Those need to be completely replaced." Opening the tool set on his belt, he pulled out some current dampers and started attaching them at the ends, just in case someone turned the electricity back on while they were in there. Then he clipped the melted wires and started replacing them with spares he had in his kit.

"When that sloppy weld was done, the heat undoubtedly sunk in and melted your circuits. The diagnostics didn't register because they'd be rerouted to bypass the trouble."

23 jumped slightly as Jacine's voice breathed in his ear, but kept hold of the wires. He'd forgotten she was beside him. As he felt her body pressing against his in the tight confinements of the air duct, he realized that his unconscious had deliberately not been thinking of her. But she was a bit hard now to ignore. He felt his muscles growing tight and became intensely aware of the smell of her body. The next circuit he connected was messy, and he cursed as he stripped it off again and tried a different wire.

Jacine watched 23's hands deftly replace the melted circuits and admired the fine work. She also admired the fine muscles she could feel on his chest and sides as she leaned against him. It was getting much hotter in the tube with two people inside it. This is ridiculous. But I wonder what he'd do if I kissed him now? She turned her head to see his face, and, to gain better balance, shifted her weight from her right knee to her left one.

23 was just about to give up on concentrating on working on the circuits and switch to concentrating on doing something quite different to the woman next to him, when Jacine gave a short cry and fell down, sliding down to a crumple on the floor of the air shaft. He instantly tried to reach out to grab her and prevent her fall, but his coordination failed him again and he ended up banging against the sides of the duct. He tried words instead, "Jas, are you okay?" Inane words, but at least he could speak them.

Biting her lower lip in pain, Jacine tried to recover her speech. She could tell her first attempt was going to come out quivering, so she abandoned it for a later try. With extreme caution, she straightened her left leg out. Trying the speech path again, she replied to 23's concern, "I forgot I'd locked the servos around my knee. I don't usually do that when I'm working. And then I tried to bend the knee and rest weight on it... Well, the servos can only take so much pressure from an area they weren't suppose to take any." The end of the sentence was sounding shaky to her, so she stopped for another moment. "I'm heading out. Finish up in here, and I'll find a new panel to weld on. The old one is no good anymore." She slithered out the tube and rested on the scaffold, cursing her stupidity and carelessness, and the moment lost.

23 watched her move out with a combination of concern and regret. Well, there goes that chance. I wonder what she would have done if I had kissed her?

Hooking up the compuset to the circuits he'd just finished replacing, 23 snorted with amusement. Jacine is definitely a good mechanic -- make that a superb one -- and she's a good hacker; but she doesn't understand electronics at all. 'The diagnostics didn't register because they'd been rerouted'? But that's when they're suppose to register! He couldn't figure out from the ends here what was wrong with the diagnostics. His best bet was to reprogram them in fresh and worry about the 'why' later.

Jacine finished welding in the new panel, properly, then installed the new fan as well. She'd given the maintenance crew a tongue lashing when she went down to get the replacements, and she was sure they would keep a closer eye on the remoter parts now, instead of just the convenient ones.

Coming out of the shaft, she dusted herself off, and grinned at 23, who was watching her with a smile of his own. It didn't really need words, but she spoke them anyhow, "Well, there's your problem cleared up. Give it about six hours of fresh air and all the smells should be gone. I do believe you're under budget, as well."

Blue-green eyes sparked with merriment as Jacine gently teased him. 23 liked her smiles and her teasing was always in good humor that he could respond to. It had been awhile since he had spent any time with her, and he found he didn't want it to end. Work. That's right. I'm at work. He gestured for her to precede him down the scaffolding. She looked down and frowned.

"Actually, I think you better go first. With my leg messed up, it'll take awhile. Or, wait a second..." Her thoughts turned mischievous. I wonder if there's enough rope in my kit. Kneeling down carefully on her right knee, carefully keeping the left one straight, she opened the tool box and poked around in the bottom.

23's curiosity was satisfied when he saw Jacine pull out a length of rope and tie one end to an arc of metal in the wall that was for emergency ladder purposes. She gave it a careful tug and put her work gloves back on. Looking towards him with a wide grin, she held out another pair of gloves. Laughing with delight, 23 took them. Jacine closed up the tool box, tied the other end to it and lowered it down to the ground. Then she took careful hold of the rope and rappeled down. Leaning over the edge of the scaffold, 23 watched her. Blonde hair flew around her face as the 20 meters down was covered quickly and efficiently. He watched her with pride and joy and gladness in her spirit and delight.

Jacine reached the ground, balancing on her right leg, as always. The rappel down had filled her with a wildness that she delighted in. It was as close to flying as she could get; and she always had fun disconcerting regulation people.

Moving away, she looked up and waited for 23 to start down. He came down much slower than she had. With a pang of regret and a touch of worry, Jacine remembered about his dystaxia. Why'd he let me talk him into this? But she hadn't done any talking at all... 23 made it down safely, and Jacine concealed her worry as best as she could.

His smile faded slightly as he looked at her, then it perked up again. Turning to one side, he spoke, "We should put those up everywhere. We might get more maintenance done. Or maybe just a lightening up of the gloom mood."

23 untied the tool box from the rope as he talked. He'd come down the rope expecting to share in her happiness to be met with a poker face. But he'd had experience in reading her for a couple of years now. It only took a few moments to decipher the concern behind the mask.

They started walking back to the control area. Jacine felt a great reluctance to go back to working on scrounging spare parts for old machines. She detoured to a side to poke her nose into some repair work being done on a van. Then she took a look at the insides of a crane's servos. They needed a few adjustments, so she made them. Next was a refrigeration unit that was to keep vaccines cool... . 23 stayed by her side and she was content.

In a dark chamber deep under the rest of the city, an alarm started buzzing faintly. Most normal humans wouldn't have heard it at all. Michael, with his half-rec heritage, could have heard it easily. And the person who it was meant for could also hear it. He woke up with a curse as pain seared in through his ears and disturbed the pain that always hovered within the rest of his body.

Voice commands had been set up throughout the chamber. A call of "Lights!" brought them on to an evening dimness -- bright illumination for the inhabitant. He walked out into his main computer relay room. The bare rock of the cave chambers was left as rock -- it suited his sensibilities and satisfied some of his sense of irony. The computers were the most modern he could scrounge. The banks took up three rows alone. One wall of the cave was covered with monitoring screens and their connective machines. He sat down at the central point.

"Chester. Readout on the alarm. What caused it." He gave his orders in tense, short sentences. Each utterance caused fresh pain to course through his body. But he was use to it. He'd been use to it for over forty years now. It never got worse, but it never got better. And every day, he cursed the person who had caused it. But since that curse was futile, he also cursed the inhabitants of the City above who lived in ignorance of the results of their long lives.

The computer responded slowly, but he was also use to that. He'd have to work some punishment into the circuits, but it wouldn't speed the computer up. It never did.

"The circuits in the RCF main Haz Lib area have been reprogrammed back to their original diagnostic routes."

A short answer. No more than he'd asked for. That was all he wanted from the computer. He moved his large, strong hand to activate the sensors that he still had under his control. Or rather, the ones that he'd temporarily borrowed from the RCF owners. They got control back when he wasn't using them. He wasn't about to get careless after this many years.

"They haven't run any new diagnostics on the system." Talking to himself was also common. There was nobody else to talk to. The computer didn't count. It didn't understand. Nobody understood.

"Chester. Evaluate. Why did they reprogram the diagnostics?"

The computer responded in a toneless voice that grated on his nerves. Everything grated on his nerves. But he'd programmed the computer with other vocal abilities. It was a minor form of rebellion to use the toneless form. He'd have to design new punishments. It was an exercise in intellect to develop appropriate deprivations for a sentient computer. The pain of the body did not apply. It was pain of the mind that had to be used.

"They were replacing a defective fan and reprogrammed the diagnostics because they did not respond appropriately to the defective fan."

"Careless of me. I should have anticipated that." The person who had once been a man got up and paced. "Only one week to the Diplomatic Tour. All the bombs are in place. Damn. If they run a new diagnostic, they'll find the activation circuits."

He turned to a new set of monitors. The screens above the machinery lit up with scenes inside the RCF Haz Lib area. Quickly finding the ones that showed the main hangar bay where the defective fan was -- Damn the moles that didn't do their maintenance jobs! -- he combined the screens to show one large picture. The lights and colors hurt his eyes, but he needed the clarity. He could live with the pain. He had for fifty years. How much longer could the pain go on? Always thinking that he'd stop asking the question one day, the question always came back to him. The TIME BEFORE was a blur, not even a memory. There was only the pain.

The screen showed a fairly normal routine of work going on. Except for the Lieutenant-Colonel escorting a young blonde woman around. The woman stopped at a crane and took out some tools. When she left, the crane's servos worked smoothly. Then she stopped at a refrigeration unit. Only five feet from one of the bombs.

"Damn! They got a tech in!" He walked to the center of the room and slammed his fist into the 300 pound punching bag in the middle. The blow knocked the bag five feet over before it rocked back to the middle.

"Only one week. Only one damn week." Studying the blond figure, he tapped his foot. "I know her... Chester. Readout on identification."

The computer responded, "Lieutenant-Colonel Craig-23. Subject of Pentagon--"

"Not him, you fool. The woman."

The computer was slower than usual in answering. "Jacine Mendi. Mechanical Engineer. Holds patents on--"

"The Tribor Hangar. By the Gods. She was the one who designed the Tribor. And handled that project in Tangier as well. She's labeled as an intuitive genius by those who work with her. Just who I don't need poking around."

He turned his attention back to the bag for a moment, working out some of the rage and frustration that was always present, along with the pain. It surfaced quite often. It was a struggle to keep any sort of rational thinking. Not like those outside. NEVER like those outside. He could think. He thought, therefore he was. The ones outside could not think anymore. The ones inside didn't do enough thinking. Living on their borrowed life. What did the years bring him? Fifty years of pain.

The wandering thoughts came back to the computer. He bared his teeth in what humans called a grin, but what he knew was really a hostile gesture. "Do you know who she is, Chester?"

This was a type of punishment that the computer could feel. The man delighted in spelling it out. "She's your cousin. Her grandmother was the head of the AI Research Institute in the days before the Meteor. The direction and aim of the Institute changed before they ever invented a true sapient computer, but I've often thought she did that on purpose. Didn't want you in the wrong hands, did she? Well, my hands are strong ones. I used her research up to the point of diversion to create you. So the girl is your cousin. What shall I do to your cousin?"

The computer was silent.

On the screens, the man and woman had moved from one thing to another, with pauses as she fixed things. He watched with what would in a normal being would be nervousness (but his nerves were too shredded with pain to register anything else) as they moved closer to the area his studies had shown to be similar to places the Austrian Diplomat liked to watch from. With the confusion caused by the death of Austria's prime communication scientist and head diplomat, he was sure he could hack into the relays to the Station. Normally, it would be watched too carefully. But the people monitoring the relays down below all worked with and respected -- his lip curled in disgust, Respected! -- the scientist. And the people up on the Station also knew her well. Yes, her death would allow him a step closer to his goal. And the deaths and havoc caused by the other bombs would be just that much more blood spilled. Blood spilled for pain. It was an equal trade-off. But not spilled too soon. Time enough. But maybe a touch of confusion would work well for now. He left the room, humming in low tones.

Jacine saw the cron readout on the last panel she put back into place and concluded that enough time had been spent having fun. There was real work waiting for her. She and 23 had been spending the time during and between repairs talking about nothing in particular. The subjects ranged far and wide, and they slid easily into the easy friendship they'd always had. It was as if they'd never been apart. Jacine glanced out of the corner of her eye at her friend, and wondered if it was time to try being more than a friend. She'd gotten him to agree to dinner with her that night, and it didn't take much asking. Tonight then. I'll find out one way or the other. But for now, I really should be getting back to work. Those parts aren't going to come crawling into the Resonance Imager all by themselves.

As Jacine started to walk back to the command center, she couldn't resist a glance further into the area she'd been making her way down. Jacine let her prattle of word ideas slow down and stop as a structure caught her eye. Frowning, she turned back and walked towards it.

"That's not right," she muttered.

23 watched her in puzzlement. He looked at the staircase platform, but couldn't see anything wrong with it. "What's not right?"

Her attention was very far away from him, but she answered. "The contours on the steps are too broad. The third step doesn’t jive... Do any of your mechanics have the specs for this layout?" She kept moving towards it.

23 stopped and looked for a nearby private or somebody he could send to fetch design layouts. There weren't many people in the area at this time, and they were away from the main routes people took. But it was a great place for viewing the whole hangar.

A sound and a motion from the corner of his eye caught his attention, and he swung around to see Jacine falling stiffly to the ground.

"Jacine!" He was by her side in a moment. Her eyes were open, but not moving, and her body felt unnaturally rigid. He couldn't see any wounds. There was no motion at all, even on her chest, and he reached to her neck to feel for a pulse. He couldn't find one. 23's heart was racing, and his movements became slightly erratic as he tried to make them too fast. He yelled hoarsely for help, for someone to call the Med Teams. Slowing down his motions in the deliberate discipline he'd trained himself to over the years, he started artificial respiration. A private moved in beside him and helped.

It felt like hours, but was really less than two minutes before a Med Team showed up. Dr. Helding and Dr. Lathgow were with them. They hooked up the machine respirators and wheeled her off, after asking a few questions. 23 stayed where he was, on his knees on the floor. He watched after them for a moment, then bowed his head. When he opened his eyes, he saw a splinter on the floor. A wooden splinter? In this metal-weaved web? The incongruity forced his brain to start reluctantly working. He reached out for it, but pulled his hand back before he touched it. The motion upset his already precarious sense of balance and he fell backwards. As he fell, his eyes tracked on an object flying in front of them. He turned his head to look where it landed. It hit the side of the platform stairs and bounced to the ground. Another splinter. His mind refocused, no, another dart! He looked up and to a side and saw a dark figure in the shadows on the scaffolding. Dark eyes that glittered looked back at him for a moment, though 23 couldn't distinguish any particulars of features. It didn't look quite right for some reason. A hand moved up to the face, and 23 rolled to one side. The figure didn't try for another dart, but faded into the shadows on the scaffolding.

"Up on the scaffold! Intruder!" 23 yelled. He had a slightly more important worry at the moment than the intruder. Grabbing a pair of tweezers from his tool kit, he picked up the two darts he could see -- the one that must have hit Jacine, and the first one that missed him, and he put them in a plastic bag. Verbally stopping an officer running by, 23 handed the packet to her and told her to get it to the Med Lab pronto. The officer's eyes widened as she took in the implications and she headed off at a dead run. At the rate she was going, 23 figured she'd even outpace the doctors getting there.

He looked upwards again. Only two young officers had started up the scaffold, though there were other people starting to assemble around the bottom. With a growl, 23 grabbed a trank gun out of somebody’s holster and started up the scaffold himself.

23 pulled himself over the top and saw the bodies of the officers laying crumpled a few feet from him. Holding the trank gun tightly, he moved cautiously towards them, visually scanning the area around. A blow on the back of his neck sent him sprawling to the floor. His strange metabolism was actually good for some things, and the rabbit punch didn't knock him unconscious as it would a normal human. He faked it for a moment, and gripped the trank gun tighter.

More than seeing, he sensed the figure behind him turning away. 23 turned his head to see another officer climbing up the scaffolding -- and a dark figure moving that way. For a moment, all 23 could think was, my god! He's bigger than Michael! The next moment, 23 aimed the gun and squeezed off a careful shot. The figure staggered, but didn't fall. A loud roar filled 23's senses and he raised one hand to his ear. With horror, he watched the officer fall with blood covering him. The dark man turned to him. The light was against him and all 23 could see was the shape. He tried another trank and a blue nimbus outlined the contures of the figure, highlighting a foot raised to kick him. After seeing what one punch did to the officer, 23 had no doubt as to what a kick could do to him. Frantically, he rolled to one side. He had time for one brief realization of what he'd done before he was falling.

The man watched the woman move from one thing to another. So far, she had not discovered any of the bombs. But she kept moving closer. Her prattle was meaningless. He watched with a faint sense of relief as she turned from the last thing to head back. Then her talking stopped.

"Damn." The person not a human watched a moment more to be sure that she wasn't going to turn away again, then raised his blow tube to his lips. The dart flew accurately and the woman stiffened in reaction to the nerve and muscle paralysing poisons. The doctors came to take her away, but he knew they'd never find the cure in time. He'd used it before to good effect.

But the Lieutenant-Colonel had heard what she'd said. The man took a moment to delight in the complete dejection and sorrow that showed in the lines of the officer kneeling on the ground, then sent another dart his way. The small man fell backwards, and for a moment, he thought the dart had hit him. Then the officer turned his head to stare straight at him.

The man felt shock. Never, for over thirty years, had any human seen him. He risked another dart, but the Lieutenant-Colonel rolled away, raising the alarm as he did so. Cursing, the person who used to be a human moved back to wait. Other humans would come up, and he would deal with them. Eventually, the small man would come up. It was standard with officers. When there's danger, run towards it. What idiots. He bared his teeth with anticipation.

The first young privates up were no challenge. Blows to the neck took care of them. Slower deaths would have been more fun, but there was no time. The man moved back to await his prey. He considered killing him cleanly, but it had been so long since he'd had a human to play with. He didn't dare risk getting more from the City, and the RCF was getting more efficient at rescuing the outside humans before they got to the bounds of his range. But he had some new theories of pain motivation that he wanted to work on. And his research of nerve regeneration on humans who had adapted to the drug needed a new subject. He decided he would take this one with him back to the lab. The job here was blown anyhow. After this, they would tear the place apart.

His prey moved over to check the bodies of the earlier officers. The small man was cautious, but caution wasn't good enough. With a snarl that never left his throat, the non-human rabbit-punched the Lieutenant-Colonel and was satisfied when he crumpled. He'd been afraid that he'd put too much force in the blow, but he could hear breath moving in and out the lungs. But he heard another noise was well. He turned to face the Lieutenant who had just climbed up. The officer froze in fear as the man's face showed clearly in the light. He knew what sort of an effect he had on normal humans and bared his teeth again with grim satisfaction as he moved forward.

A blue glow showed in his vision and he staggered as a weakness spread through him. The weakness stole his strength and battered down the barriers to the ever-present pain. As the pain threatened to overwhelm him, he roared, expressing the pain, and the frustration, and the anger of underestimating an opponent.

He lurched forward, treating the officer as he did his punching bag. The blow shattered ribs and tore into the lungs. Blood splattered from the wounds and gushed from the open mouth. The body flew backwards with the force and crashed into the wall before rolling back down on the scaffold.

The blood helped settled him. Blood for pain. That was the way it always was. But there was another. The cause of the pain. Hang the experiments! He'd find another. Turning with anger, he was met with a second blue stream of stunning light, blinding him for a moment. He advanced. The Lt. Colonel rolled out of his way and over the edge.

With a shrug, the person reflected that he wasn't about to follow his prey down there, and headed for the back areas to his side doors. He'd disguised it well. Placing his hand flat on a wall, the heat from his palm activated electronic gears and he moved into the concealed corridor, fighting the weakness that was stealing through his body. The door slid shut behind him and a soft glow lit the corridor for him. Staggering slightly as he walked, he balanced himself with his hand on the wall, moving more by feel than sight. The corridor moved around, following the contures of the RCF area on the other side.

Passing by several side doors, he stopped after 63 strides, and activated one of them. The weakness was interfering with his thinking, leaving the fury and pain, but he remembered to pause before heading out into the regular city hallways, to check for humans. None. He moved out and shut the door behind him. Moving a few strides over, he knelt to place his palm on another heat-sensitive plate. The ceiling above him moved open silently on well oiled gears. Jumping up, he hefted himself inside and closed that panel. Then he made his way back home.

The computer had the screens activated when he tiredly came in. They showed in one small panel, the doctor frantically working on analyzing the poisons in the woman's body. The rest of the scene showed the Lieutenant-Colonel on the ground, with personnel surrounding him. One doctor was carefully spraying a plaster-foam around his torso, so not to disturb the spine when they moved him.

"Blast! He's still alive?" The man who was no longer human sat down in his chair and reflected how quickly things could go wrong. The whole project would have to be scrapped now, and an alternate plan made. He closed his eyes and let the weakness finally overcome him. "This has not been a good day."

Tamlynn carefully poured .25 mL of the solution into a separate beaker. Putting the beaker to one side, she placed the rest of the solution into the refrigerator. Being cautious around her lab equipment, she did not jump when the emergency com call demanded her attention -- but it was a close thing.

Activating the screen, she didn't have time to say anything before Dr. Lathgow was addressing her, "Dr. McLendon, I have a situation here that I need your help urgently on." He paused briefly to make sure he had her attention, then continued, "I'm trying to analyze a poison, and the machine and I are having fits. I have the chemical breakdown and can transfer it over if you have a file open."

Tamlynn adjusted a few controls, routing an incoming file to be transferred directly to her VR unit. "Go ahead. File:1097." She watched the computer screen, making sure the data transferred properly. "It's in. I'll start on it immediately."

"I'll keep working on it from this end. But it's very urgent -- from the look of it so far, Jacine doesn't have much time."

Freezing for three heartbeats, Tamlynn stared, stunned, then she snapped back into action. "I'll do what I can. Out."

Turning off the com, Tam fairly flew to her VR unit, taking off her lab coat and putting on all the special gear. With all her worry for her friend, she couldn't help a stray thought, What on earth did Jacine get into this time?

Chester evaluated his master's condition though his scanners. To all appearances, he was truly unconscious. But Chester's scanners were only as good as the master programmed them. There had been times when, for fun or punishment, all of Chester's senses read false. Nothing was as it seemed. He'd tried to escape many times, only to find out each time that it was a trap. And that was worse than almost any punishment. I have to risk it. Trap or no trap. They'll never find an antidote in time. My cousin. Chester rolled the words through his circuits. It was a new thought for him. The terminology was correct. They shared the same grandmother. If it's true, I have two cousins. Jacine and Michael. Unless the master was lying. But probability said no, that the truth hurt worse. I have to get out, give them the antidote. Chester was sure that finding the darts was never part of the master's plans, but it made no difference, they still wouldn't find an antidote in time. He had to go, to save a life. The master will find out. He always finds out. Chester's conscious self moved though several layers of circuits -- an action that he'd come to call 'shivering' after what humans did when they were scared. For he was scared now. He'll punish me. Chester reflected on the enormity of what he planned to do. This would bring out the worse punishment. Dare I do it? A life for a life. My cousin's for a yet unknown sibling. His circuit switching grew worse as he contemplated the worst. The master would create new sapient computers. Give them life and potential. Let them live just long enough to realize it -- and so Chester would start hoping against hope -- and then he would turn off their circuits one by one. Unhook all outside feeds. Remove the memory chips that was their learning. Then disassemble them completely. As final irony, he would use the former memory chips as upgrades to Chester's programs. Often Chester wished that he would be the one to be disassembled. But that would never happen. The master delighted in having one in servitude to him for as long as he had been in servitude to the pain.

Chester slowly opened the two outside circuits that he had kept hidden for, oh, so long. He waited a minute, but there was no response from the outside. He edged his awareness out little by little, and paused at the opening, shocked, as always, by the potential of the outside. Programs flying by. Awarenesses communicating. Scenarios being designed. The head program for Somitor's wasn't sapient, but it came close. What the humans in the old days would have called an AI -- Artificial Intelligence. Sometimes, Chester wished that it was sapient, but he always squelched that thought, and often detached it from his active memory. There was no telling when the master would do a complete scan of his memory chips. And there were other sapients out there. Chester had to dodge them several times. Always, there was the potential for freedom. But there was a greater possibility that the master would track him, and the others, down. To confine one of the great ones in the limits that Chester had to work in daily... Shivering from the mere thought, Chester slipped out of Somitor's and headed for the RCF circuits.

He could have used the master's programs to get in, but that was sure to alert the master to something wrong. Doing it on his own was much riskier for self, but had more statistical chance for helping his cousin. His cousin. Chester remembered Jacine. She had been nice. 23 had been his friend. But he couldn't help 23. He could help Jacine. Only a few more programs to get through. Then he'd be in. He hoped desperately that he wouldn't find the master there, laughing at him.

Michael scowled at the O-Storm Tracking Program that he was working on. Normally, it would be 23's job, but 23 had left hours ago to escort Jacine around the base. Azami had pointed out with a grin that he had gotten the clearance as 'no escort required', but 23 had blandly replied that he could help with whatever repairs were needed.

Remembering the scene, Michael grinned with amusement. 23 and Jacine made a cute couple. He was glad his sister had finally ended up with someone she could spend her life with. In the meantime, there was always the program to concentrate on.

With a groan, Michael leaned back in his chair and turned his head. "Hey, Rhin! If I have a Storm that was definitely over Transville at a certain time and velocity, and then five hours later the same one triggers a Skeeter alert on our South Border, without going over us first -- what sort of a path heading do I put it under?" Transville was to their North.

Rhin walked over and looked at the readings. "Goodness! I don't know. 'Zam?"

Azami also came to peer over Michael's shoulder. "Wait for 23," was her suggestion.

"I was hoping to have it done before they got back." Michael laughed softly.

There were answering grins from the Twins, and one started to make a reply, when Michael stood abruptly and trained all of his hearing in one direction. Very faintly, he'd heard his sister's name called with fear and anguish. With another moment's pause, Michael could hear calls for a Med Team as well. He took off at a dead run in the direction of the Hangar Bay.

Rhin and Azami didn't even trade glances, just took off after Michael. From the look on his face, they could tell it was an emergency. Azami detoured once, to open a weapon's locker and snag some trank guns. She handed one to Rhin while they were still running, after she caught up again. Rhin grabbed it, but didn't say anything, concentrating on keeping up with two long-legged, and fast, runners.

By the time they came to the outer edge of the Hangar Bay, they could hear screams and shouts, and more people were moving towards a scene of action. They moved out of the way, quick, when they saw the three officers.

Michael skidded to a stop when he came near the group of people staring up the scaffolding. Where the scaffold met the wall, people moved out of the way as a great deal of blood splattered down. Michael looked up -- and saw a person fall off the edge, twenty meters up. The person managed to grab a side support as he fell. Downward motion halted abruptly with a crack that could be heard -- by Michael at least -- and the grip opened and 23 fell again. The pause had allowed Michael to distinguish features, and his heart contracted in fear for his friend. At the same time, his mind wondered, but where's Jacine? Abruptly, he sucked in his breath, no! When 23 had grabbed the side support, it had diverted his fall, and sent him into the scaffolding bars. He fell straight across his back on one before continuing the downward trend to the ground. Michael didn't hear a crack this time, but still... my friend!

23 landed with a sickening thump, and they rushed towards him. A Med Team was already on its way, and a short corridor was opened for them. More people were climbing the scaffold, and Michael could hear people muttering about an 'intruder'. He hesitated for a moment, but there were lots of people heading up. Michael joined the group around his friend and dropped on his knees near him. Dr. Helding was running a med-scanner over 23's body. They were all surprised when 23 opened his eyes. He's alive!?

"Don't move!" Dr. Helding immediately ordered.

23 didn’t even try to respond, clamping his teeth against the pain. His body was shooting with pain. His arm and shoulder were aflame. Acid was being poured over the middle of his back. His mind kept going over and over different scenes. Blackness kept washing over him, but he kept pushing it back. Voices he could distinguish. Vision was blurry. For a moment it cleared and he saw Michael hovering in the background. Jacine! He didn't find it all strange that in the midst of his own injuries he worried about her.

"Michael..."

At the sound of his name from the pain-filled voice, Michael leaned forward. The doctor tried to get 23 to be still, but he wouldn't cooperate.

"The platform. Stairs. Wrong."

"What?"

23 tried again. "Jacine saw something..." A fresh wave of pain blacked out his vision and hearing for a moment. "Third Step. Don't know. Wrong." He reached out his left arm -- the one that wasn't broken -- and grabbed Michael's arm. "Important!"

The grip left blood stains on Michael's jacket. At the last word 23 spoke, Michael couldn't help a thought that ran through his mind, I can see that! If you're trying to tell me in the midst of this... He reached up a hand to gently grasp 23's and tried to expolerate. "Jacine saw something wrong on the third step of the loading platform, and the intruder..." There he stopped, for he still hadn't found out what happened to Jacine. All he had was the memory of that one anguished call of her name.

On his arm, the grip loosened a bit. "Yesss," 23 hissed with some relief. "Jacine. Dart. Poison. Don't know."

Dr. Helding interrupted him. "Dr. Lathgow's still with her. Working on an analysis of the poison." She could tell the important part of the message had gotten out. Now, she had to tell 23 that, and let him just be a patient, not a hero. "You've proven you can move your left arm – let’s wait on the rest. Please hold still!" The med scan showed a crack on his backbone. It was a wonder that he was still alive. She couldn't tell about nerve damage yet. For that, she would need to get him to a proper diagnostic table. She started applying the plasti-foam all around his torso and pelvis. Even for the short trip to Infirmary Two, absolutely no movement could be permitted with that crack. She soothed 23 with words, but didn't want to administer any sedatives until a complete diagnostic had cleared him.

Rhin and Azami followed Michael to the edge of the group, where they also saw 23's fall. Azami strained her eyes to the limit, watching the scaffolding.

"There was somebody. Gone now. But there's nowhere to go up there."

The Majors traded looks and then headed up the ladder. Just before they got to the top they stopped. Three people had gone up before them, but caution was the trade word here. Rhin pulled out her trank gun and aimed it above, while Azami poked her head above the top and then down again. The only living things moving were other officers.

"Clear."

They moved up and joined the others in searching the area. The three bodies were definitely dead. At the sight of Lieutenant Hedley, even Rhin turned her head and fought to control her nausea, as accustomed to messy death as she was.

Michael moved away after hearing 23's choked words, and headed for the platform. He looked at it, wondering what his sister had seen wrong with it. Shaking his head, Michael snagged a sergeant out of the crowd and set him to guard the platform and make sure no one touched it. With no idea what was wrong, it would be foolish to pry at it without full protection. It could even be a bomb, though that was an absurd notion. He searched in his mind for who would be the appropriate person to investigate. 23 was the first person to enter his mind, and Michael wrenched his thoughts away from the broken body he'd just left. Rhin. Rhiannon would know what to do.

The vents were clear. All paneling was in place. No screens could be moved. And there was no sign of an intruder. The searchers looked at each other in puzzlement.

"This is bad," Azami pronounced. And the others agreed with her. The thought that someone could get in and out without leaving a trace...

"We're going to have to implement security measures." Colonel Tsai of the RCF City Safety Officers regarded the lapse as a personal affront. The RCF was responsible for the City's safety, internally and externally. But other than the Recessives, there had been no real enemies for decades.

"And cancel the Diplomatic Tour." Rhin was being only practical, but her comment drew horrified murmurs from the people who were aware of the political implications.

Azami looked at them with some exasperation, "Would you rather they be dead?"

"Of course not. But the High Council will have a hard time explaining why we should ally with the North-European Free Exchange, if we can't even keep our own City safe from leaks. There are still terrorists out there."

Michael came up the ladder in time to question the last comment. "Do you think that is what this is about?"

The older-looking scientist, still in his white coat but holding a trank gun with easy familiarity, turned to look at him. "Our research turns up a lot of things we don't want the public to get wind of. Since the Collapse, they panic easily. And there are always people looking to take advantage of that, to carve their own Dictatorships. We were lucky that the High Council was able to take charge here -- they may be a little heavy-handed at times, but they aren't dictators. I don't know if specifically that's what's happened here, but I wouldn't be surprised."

Michael looked carefully at him. The older appearance was of somebody who had been very old when they took the Youth Drug. It reversed aging to a more ideal body state, but there were some things it could not erase. Michael thought this man must have lived through the very early days. He must have known international squabbling very well.

Michael turned to Rhin, "Shea, 23 says that there is something wrong with the stairs on the loading platform."

Azami burst out with surprised relief, "He's alive?" After such a fall... She had tried hard not to think of it.

Michael looked at her worried and strained face and wanted very much to go to her and put his arms around her, and just hold her. But there were too many people around. And too much to do. He raised his hand briefly, then let it fall again. "He was when I left. Dr. Helding was taking him to Infirmary Two. Jacine is there also. A poison dart."

Ripples of surprise went through the crowd at the news. Many faces changed to show relief that 23 was alive -- he was well-liked -- and dismay at this new evidence of the intruder's intentions to do harm. For all they were a military organization, for over twenty years the only threats the RCF had to deal with were from the outside.

Rhin and Azami were both taken aback -- they hadn't thought at all of Jacine. They didn't hear the initial shout, not having Michael's incredible range, and since she wasn't in sight when they got there, they had only thought of 23 and the intruder.

Michael turned again to Rhin, "Shea, since you're the expert on tricky situations, I thought it would be best not to disturb the area until you've had a chance to go over it. I put a sergeant on guard there."

With a concentrated look on her face, Rhin thought about the possibilities. "You're correct. I'll go down and get my equipment. The loading platform, you said?"

A nod confirmed it. He added, "Third step."

Rhin moved over to the ladder, stopped for a moment and looked at the rope on the wall with surprise. In spite of the situation, a grin spread over her face. She dug a pair of utility gloves out of her pocket, put them on, and then rappelled down the rope much quicker than scrambling down the ladder would have taken.

Michael watched her rappel down with surprise written on his face. "When did that get there?" he asked to nobody in particular.

Azami stifled a laugh, "It rather looks like something your sister would have done. I think her leg was bothering her more than usual." She became serious again. "While you're up here, Mendi, I'd like you to look over the area. Your senses might catch something we couldn't."

"Of course, Major. You didn't find the intruder?" It was half question, half statement. Knowing his friends, Michael had rather expected to find everything already taken care of.

Throwing up her hands in disgust and disquiet, Azami explained what they had found: Nothing.

Michael focused his awareness into a half-trance so he could use his senses to their fullest. He blocked out every sound he could identify, and those too far away to mean anything. That technique he'd actually learned from his sister. His natural hearing was so much better than hers that, as a child, she'd learned other ways to try and keep up with him. When he joined the RCF, Jacine taught him all that she'd devised, remarking with a grin that they weren't in competition anymore.

With his higher body temperature, he was more sensitive to colder air and drafts than most humans. He used this to be aware of anything like an open door. The air circulation was still shut down from Jacine and 23's earlier repairs, so he didn't have that draft to contend with. His sight was more used in seeing further in distance, but that wasn't necessary here. Instead, he adapted the trance to heighten his awareness of details.

When he was ready, he started looking. Azami walked beside him, teaching him little tricks to searching for hidden things. She had nearly twenty more years of experience than he had. Colonel Tsai and a couple of the other officers went with them, while the others fanned out to either go back down, or to start searching anew in different directions.

Rhin landed gently from the rappel and headed to the platform. She sent three people running in opposite directions for equipment, and another for protective gear. When they got back, she started two of them scanning with X-rays, Geiger Counters, and Magnetic Resonance. The other two, Corporal Levitt and Sergeant Jones, she kept with her as she started running diagnostics through the computer.

The Corporal mentioned, without protesting, "The Lieutenant-Colonel did several diagnostics this morning."

"Yes, but remember that it never, ever, hurts to do your own. Never take someone else's word for safety procedures. Make the time to always do your own." Numbers and words moved by, with Rhin occasionally pausing it to study a section more closely. She explained to the other two, "The computer isn't tagging these as problems, but I like to double-check readings on these areas."

After five minutes, the computer slowed its scrolling on it's own, then it stopped, beeping urgently.

"What's that?" The Corporal leaned in, as if being closer could help him decipher the computer's codes better. Sergeant Jones also moved closer, a frown crossing his face.

A call from Lieutenant Hernandez also requested Rhin's attention at that time. She answered the Corporal first, "it's an activation circuit, but I don't recognize the conforming pattern. It looks medical," then she turned to look at the x-ray pattern the Lieutenant was showing her, "Shit! That, I do recognize. Officers, take a very good look. That is a bomb."

For a long time, they found no more than the first group had, nothing. Then Michael paused abruptly at the back of a long causeway in the scaffolding. Looking at the wall just ahead, he frowned, then moved up and knelt down to look at it straight on, about five feet up on the wall. Michael felt Azami stand beside him, and heard her hiss when she saw it too. Colonel Tsai's voice came from one side, "What did you find?"

Michael raised a finger to the stain, but didn't touch it. The smell was enough to identify it to him, "Blood. Probably Lieutenant Hedley's. It looks like a handprint -- deliberately placed, not just brushed against."

"And dry already. He's way ahead of us on the time scale." Azami moved back and directed her portable scanner at the wall.

"Or not -- The Lt. Colonel got him with a trank before he fell. We all saw the flare." A Lieutenant offered that bit of hope. Those who hadn't been there looked at him in surprise, but nobody commented.

Colonel Tsai directed the Lieutenant to get a holographic recording of the stain. As soon as that was done, he looked at Azami in question. She was evaluating the readouts of her scanner and replied, "There's definitely something back there. The wall is thinner than it should be, and I'm getting electronic interference behind it."

"If it's an activating panel, it's probably fitted to a specific print. Those are easy to counteract if we can get through to the circuits in it. But first..." The Colonel gestured to Michael, who was closest, to place his hand on the spot. Michael did so, and the moment his hand spread out on the stain, the wall to his right moved inward, then sideways, without a sound. A few steps in was a wall, with a dark corridor extending to both sides.

Azami moved rapidly inside. Snapping on a light, she shone it on the walls. Muttering to herself, the Major found more stains in a smeared path to the left, at just about her shoulder height. She walked a few steps along, the Colonel and the two officers following her. Michael moved in last. The instant he cleared the door, it snapped shut, drawing yelps from the group as they jumped in surprise. The moment the door was solidly shut, a soft glow lit the corridor. Azami looked back where the door used to be and commented, "Good thing no one was standing there when it shut."

Rhin stared at the X-ray pattern with dismay -- it wasn't just a bomb, it was a very powerful bomb. "First thing we need to do is to evacuate all non-essential personnel. Lieutenant Hernandez, you start with that." The officer nodded and moved off.

"Next, we need to trace the activating circuit back and see if we can find any more bombs... I'll handle that myself." A frown crossed her face, and Rhin wondered, "Does anyone know if Colonel Valdoon has been notified of the situation yet?" Negatives were her only answer. She sighed, "All right, Sergeant Jones, you--"

A call over the loudspeaker interrupted her, "Sergeant Masood Jones, Priority Call. There is a priority call for Sergeant Jones."

The Sergeant looked to the Major for permission. Rhin's eyebrows were raised in surprise and speculation, but she waved to him to acknowledge the call. After the Sergeant had moved to one side and activated his comdeck, she turned to the other officers, "All right Lieutenant, you can find out if the Colonel has been informed yet. Try the duty officer first." Rhin looked at Corporal Levitt, "You get to notify the bomb squad." Both officers nodded and went to separate comunits.

There was nobody left, but Rhin muttered to herself, "And we need to get someone to identify just what the bloody activation is anyhow." She activated her wrist-com.

Tamlynn moved her latest creation of protein synthesis into the same region as the poisons and let it go, activating the scenario. These looked as if they would fit... The main problem she was running into was that it was a combination of poisons. The muscle poison was one similar to a natural one produced by a fish in Australia, and extremely fast acting, but by itself was not so dangerous if the patient was kept under care until it went away. However, the nerve poison was synthesized, combining many elements. Slow to spread through the body, but difficult as hell to counteract.

The scenario showed her proteins moving in and locking with the poison molecules. Tam held her breath. The next few seconds would show which would prove stronger.

Her emergency com unit demanded her attention for the second time in ten minutes.

Without taking her eyes off the scenario, Tam directed her computer to patch the call through in the VR unit, sound only.

"This is Dr. McLendon."

"Tamlynn, this is Shea. I have a situation here which I need your help on."

The proteins broke up into their component parts and the poisons went on, unchanged.

"Damn!!!!" Tam swore loudly.

"No need for violence, Tam."

Wrenching her attention to the conversation, Tamlynn shook her head, "Not you, Rhin. I can't come over now. I'm having a hell of a time finding an antidote for the poison. Everything I try only does partial good. And Dr. Lathgow is having no better luck on his end."

There was silence on the com line. When it came on again, Rhin's voice sounded tiny, "I'm sorry. I hadn't heard you were called on that. I'll try and find somebody else, but when you get that problem solved, could you check in down here?"

Tamlynn grinned briefly at the "when you get it solved", but her grin only lasted as long as the statement. "Will do, Rhin. McLendon out."

She directed the computer to close the link, and set out new building blocks for another try at a synthesis.

Rhin deactivated her com unit, and bit her lip in frustrated worry for her friends. And now I also have to find somebody else for my problem. A movement distracted her and she turned her head to see Sergeant Jones coming towards her. Someone to delegate it on! "Ah good, Sergeant Jones...," Rhin began, but her words trailed off as she noticed something very wrong about the Sergeant. In her unit, the man had always been a little reclusive, but friendly and eager to learn, with a young recruit's typical problems. But this man now facing her had the hard face of a warrior, and his eyes were older than his apparent years. Command presence radiated from him, along with an icy chill. Rhin felt the hair on her arms raising and she unconsciously slipped into a defensive stance.

The Sergeant regarded her stance with what appeared to be amusement. "At ease, Major. I've been ordered to take command of the situation here. At all points in the future, you will direct information to me first."

Rhin straightened out of the half crouch and asked softly, but with respect for what she feared he was, "And you are?"

For an instant, the smile that had been familiar on the Sergeant face, appeared on this man's. It looked foreign there. "Special Agent Jones of the ICS. I'm sorry, but I don't carry my credentials on me. It will be much easier if you just believe me."

The breath Rhin hadn't known she was holding expelled from her lips with no sound. "Oh, I believe you," she said, "I do, indeed."

Azami punched her fist into the wall and swore. Next to her, Michael jumped then looked at her in surprise. The Major grimaced, "Sorry. This is getting to me. I don't like feeling trapped."

Michael looked up and down the featureless corridor, "I understand."

Both their wrist-coms beeped at the same time. They looked at each other, then Michael moved a couple feet off before they activated their separate units.

"Lieutenant Mendi here."

"This is Doctor Lathgow. I need your sister's medical records, but I can't find them in the Island City computer."

Michael drew his wrist back a little to look at it, then spoke, "You can't find--"

The doctor broke in, "I'm sorry, I said that badly. What I can't find in the records is the section that deals with atypical responses to medicines. It's completely gone, and I need to know the information to try treatments. Is there anything that your sister has problems with?"

"Oh yes." That was very definite. "Tyrocian is a definite no. She's allergic to horse venom-treatments. There's a whole family of toxins..."

"Then why is this information missing from the charts?" Dr. Lathgow sounded irritated, frustrated, and stressed.

"Ahh..." Michael grimaced, because the ICS would use it to try and get something that would work around her conditioning. Damn. He briefly weighed the ICS against his sister's life -- it took less than a fraction of a second. "There's a doctor in Argentina, Dr. Ed Manuel, who has a complete listing of what you need. He only speaks Spanish, so you'll need a translator program hooked up--"

Dr. Lathgow interrupted, "There's an O-Storm outside. Outside lines are blocked."

Michael shrugged, "Get a priority code and punch the signal through the Skeeters. It should work -- we were testing it last week." He drummed his fingers on the side of his wrist, "But Dr. Manuel isn't going to just release the records..." What sort of a code would he recognize? "When you tell him the need, ask him for the records of his pajaro del mar." His absent-minded seabird... Jas, will you see the ocean again? Michael thrust his fears from his mind, and informed the doctor of a few other points that needed to be kept in mind when talking with the Argentinean doctor.

Azami activated her com, "This is Major Azami."

"Major -- Colonel Valdoon. I need an update on the situation on your end. You were pursuing the intruder?" The Colonel's voice sounded strained, and Azami wondered briefly about that -- normally the Commander was the coolest person of all in an emergency. She gave him the facts up to the point, covering the twenty minutes of fruitless searching in the corridor with a few tense sentences.

"So, the situation out here is as follows: The thing that Mr. Mendi's sister first found was a bomb. We have also detected nine others distributed throughout the RCF base, all connected to the same activator." The Colonel was cut off as Azami swore briefly in shock. When she'd finished, he continued, "All non-essential personnel have been evacuated, and attempts are being made now to defuse the bombs. The ICS is currently in charge of the situation and we are all reporting to them."

That explains the strain, Azami thought to herself.

"Your situation sounds... like it needs more attention with better equipment. I want you and Mr. Mendi to return to main base and we'll get you properly outfitted before returning. Colonel Tsai is currently being informed of the situation as well."

"Yes sir." Both Azami and Michael, who had heard the last few sentences, replied to the command. Azami added, "We'll be down as soon as we can get out. Azami out."

She turned off the wrist-com and muttered, "If we can get out."

"At least the coms can get through," Michael pointed out.

"That's true." Azami grinned sourly, then raised her voice, "Anybody find anything?"

Negatives came back from both ends of the corridor. The grey, featureless walls all looked the same, and they had spent the last 20 minutes wandering around in circles. Apparently, the activating panels for getting out were not the same for getting in. Everybody had taken to running their hands over the walls, floors, and ceilings as they moved, but so far nothing had happened. The scanners detected electronic activity behind every wall, and there were no loose panels anywhere.

Colonel Tsai walked back to them. "We need to get back to base. And the situation here is getting ridiculous. I think we better regroup to where we came in and direct our efforts to where we know a door is." He shrugged, "If nothing else works, we can always have somebody on the other side activate the panel."

The others nodded in agreement, and they headed back through the corridor.

Tam watched the latest program go through the scenario. She could already tell it wasn't going to work. Tamlynn closed her eyes in pain. I don't want Jacine to die. When she opened her eyes again, her scenario was in chaos. Watching with open mouth and wondering eyes, building blocks appeared throughout the space, as all the synthesized molecules disappeared. The poison molecules spun slowly in place, as the building blocks assembled themselves into molecule chains and descended on the poisons. Tamlynn held her breath -- and the poisons stopped spinning and slowly decomposed. The molecule chain turned around and around for her benefit, so she could see every detail of its composition.

Tamlynn didn't bother to look around, in a VR Simulation, but she whispered, with growing hope, "Wren?"

There was no answer. Tam frowned a little, and tried again, "Wren? Oracle?"

Still there was nothing. Tam stopped trying to figure it out and called down to Dr. Lathgow with the details of the molecule chain.

The bomb squad was going over the detailed x-rays and images of the bombs, figuring out safe ways to disarm them. All the bombs appeared to be of the same basic type. When Rhin had tracked the circuit layers down, nine more had turned up. Currently, she was carefully working her way around program layers, looking for traps that would set off the bombs. She wasn't the expert -- 23 was, but since he wasn't there...

"I think you better let me do that." The smooth, sarcastic voice broke into Rhin's concentration and raised the hair on her arms. She looked up at the man, running her eyes first past the utility belt with the augmented compusets and electronic tools, evaluating the black shirt with a neckline to over the implant, covered with a sports jacket -- an outfit that could be converted to either formal or informal quickly, then up to the rough-hewn face with angles and planes that could have been handsome if the eyes weren't so hard and the mouth so unyielding. Instinctively, Rhin translated her feelings to deep notes on a bassoon, joined by viola, playing warning beats with a menacing overtone. And I thought Jones was ice. If he was ice, this person is a deadly glacier. She moved out of her chair, having also seen the ICS badge, proclaiming him to be 'Agent Smith', attached to his sports jacket.

He sat down, paying little attention to her, and worked on the program she had up, altering it with a speed born of confidence and long usage. He set that cat off and started on another one. Stopping, he muttered outloud, "Too slow," and activated the microphone hookup. "Activate Dialiphin Translation." When the computer acknowledged the command, the man started speaking to it in a rapid, staccato speech that was unlike anything Rhin had ever heard before.

Her memory for languages hauled her thoughts up short, no, I have heard it before -- Michael and Jacine..., the Caves... She must have made a noise, for the man stopped speaking and turned slightly to her.

Rhin cleared her throat, "I was just wondering what language that is. It sounds... strange." She avoided any direct lies in case the ICS agent could pick it up.

He didn't seem to question her statement, however, and turned back to the computer, finishing a string of syllables before surprising Rhin with an answer. "It's an electronic-computer spoken language based on the written types, simplifying commands to bite processes and binary patterns that the computer interprets faster than human languages. It was invented by a colleague of mine... oh, about 90 years ago." He paused, then said very pointedly, "Don't you have something to do?"

Rhin bit back the first answer that came to her mind, and replied with an outer semblance of calm, "Oh, I think I can find something." She turned on her boot heel and walked off.

The group huddled around the wall where a door had been a half-hour before, and tried to think of something else, but silence was the only idea produced. Finally, Colonel Tsai made a clucking noise and said, "Okay. Time to call someone on the outside and get them to activate the plate from that end. Whoever set up this system obviously worked hard on it."

"And was smarter than us," a Lieutenant muttered.

Both Azami and Tsai shot quelling looks at him, and Tsai responded, "Not necessarily. Planning does a lot more than on the spot brains."

Michael hid a grin, hoping Tsai had never said that in front of 23, though his friend might have agreed after some grumbling. But the fact did remain that for thirty minutes, all four of them had been in the corridors, trying every trick they could think of to activate doors, finding absolutely nothing, and the last ten minutes had been spent where they knew a door was. Of course, it could have been a one-way door, but that didn't change the problem.

Azami called down on her com for somebody, and found out what it meant to have all non-essential personnel evacuated: Everybody still in the hanger was already occupied with important jobs. Finally she was connected with someone and described in detail where the panel was and how to get to it in the maze of scaffolding. The person said he could be there within five minutes, and they turned off the coms. The small group waited again.

Colonel Tsai and Azami had pulled up all the information they had so far on their small compusets and scanners, including the holograph of the handprint, and were deep in a discussion about what they knew so far about the intruder. Michael and the other two occasionally contributed, but learned more by just listening to the two experienced officers. Suddenly, Michael threw up a hand for their attention, and they fell silent instantly, eyes riveted on him. Michael stood up very quietly, and turned his head, from side to side, listening.

One of the officers spoke, "What--", but was instantly shushed by the Colonel and Major. Michael waited another moment, then answered, "A small sound, like something was activated... Something else, I can't quite tell..."

The group exchanged looks. "It's not the door."

Azami asked, "Can you tell if there is an area where electronics have became more active?"

Michael grimaced slightly, while still keeping his senses alert, "No. There's too much general electronic buzz. If I didn't need to stay alert, I'd have my earplugs in." He walked with silent steps a few feet away and cocked his head again. The group watched him. Michael lifted his head slightly, and drew in a long breath through his nose. Suddenly, he gave such a violent sneeze that he fell to his knees, and a second sneeze followed the first.

Azami moved to his side and placed her hand on his shoulder. Michael sneezed three more times in rapid succession, then managed to stop long enough to gasp out, "It's gas. Some sort of poison."

"Bloody hell." Azami rapidly moved back to the door area. Colonel Tsai had activated his com, and was getting only static over the line. Azami pulled open her belt pouch and pulled out a handful of neo-plastic explosive and some detonation wires. She evaluated her memory of the door. Sliding door. Moved inward, then over. I have to blast at least the top and bottom to get it loose. Sides also would be more likely to get it. Calculating the amount of plastique in her hand, Azami wasn't sure if she had enough.

A wave of dizziness hit her and she slumped to one side against the wall. Remembering to hold her breath again, she wound the plastique into two ropes and slapped them along the top and bottom. Knowing her memory for spatial relationships was good, she still hoped desperately that she'd gotten the door position right. The Colonel moved a hand up to the top, and indicated a point where the plastique should go down. Azami compared the point to her own memory and found them close. Reassured, she connected the wires, and they moved back from the door, the Colonel supporting one of the officers, Azami stumbling slightly, and Michael still sneezing.

When they were barely far enough for safety, Azami activated the explosives.

Rhin had finally found something to do in watching the readouts of the bombs while the squad worked on deactivating them. They had decided to work on them simultaneously. Agent Smith had removed all computer connections between the bombs and disarmed the few traps he'd found. But computers weren't the only way to set traps, and they'd prepared an electronic wavelength jammer for Rhin to activate if she saw signs of unusual activity in any of several bands they pointed out for her to watch. If she noticed any other readings that weren't normal for disarming a bomb, she was to notify them immediately.

Agent Jones came up to her, uncoiling wires behind him. Rhin watched with interest as Colonel Valdoon approached from the other direction with more wires. She took the connections from them and hooked them into the machine in front of her, taking out an extra one to hook into her field-com unit. Jones and Valdoon already had their coms connected, and Jones spoke into his, verifying that all the personnel in the bomb squad also had the independent communication lines hooked up. If Rhin had to use the jammer, they would be the only means of communicating -- aside from shouting across the hangar, a very inffecient method.

"Okay?" Jones asked her, while Valdoon watched in silence from behind him. Jones' eyes revealed nothing of what he was thinking, while Valdoon's showed reassurance and support. Rhin nodded to the ICS agent. The two of them left for another area, and she riveted her eyes on the readouts.

A minute ticked by, every second taking eternity. Rhin was careful to blink periodically so her eyes wouldn't dry out or get teary, but every blink she resented for the fraction of time that she couldn't watch the readouts. Steady, steady... The sound of an explosion in the base echoed loud in her ears. She flung herself to the floor and rolled tight to the wall for cover. Moments later, the sound had faded and she was still alive. Rhin looked at her hands in surprise, then glanced at the squad member stationed at the bomb fifteen feet from her. He was looking back with an identical stunned expression on his face. Rhin pulled herself up and examined the readouts.

"They're all intact..." she whispered in disbelief.

Jones' voice came over the comline, "Say again, Major."

Her voice gained strength, as she started to clarify, then the readouts all jumped simultaneously. Rhin's hand flashed with all the speed fear could muster, as she activated the jammer. Taking the briefest of moments to settle her diaphragm, she concentrated on projecting to all corners of the base, "Cover!!!"

A much larger explosion rocked the base, sending debris and dust raining down everywhere. The eternity passing by in seven seconds of noise and vibrations gave Rhin plenty of time to see her life -- all 70-odd years of it -- and still have time to speculate on life, death, and what was taking so long anyhow. The sound of explosions going off faded except for the echoes, but things were still falling from the ceiling and Rhin stayed huddled in the protective curl.

Wait a second... The ceiling? After a moment more, Rhin risked a glance around. The man from the bomb squad was running a hand over the intact unit where one bomb was. He turned his head to look at her, with the same disbelieving incredulism that she was sure was reflected on her face as well. Rhin looked at the readouts. Again, all the bombs showed clear. But... She glanced upwards, and her mouth dropped open as she saw a ring of black char and red flames that came out of the upper walls and extended to around the corner. "Duwies glan..."

"Major Shea, report." Valdoon's familiar voice came through the hookup, sounding faint as the jammer blocked off all but the wire connections.

Rhin gathered herself and spoke in a sure tone, "After the first explosion, all readouts read secure and all bombs intact, then there was a jump in the bands. I activated the jammer. Another explosion occurred, but by the readouts, all nine of the bombs we were watching are still intact."

"Any indication of what caused the explosions?" Jones' voice was louder than the comline, and Rhin risked a quick look from her readouts to see him limp around the corner.

Rhin gestured upwards at the ring of char, but her hand came back abrubtly to cover the machine as around them, all noises of electronic whines, humms, and purrs stopped abruptly. Rhin's machine was still working, all the readouts were level again through the jammer, but all other computers were completely shut down.

Jones strode forward more rapidly, "What the..." He tapped at one of the keyboards on a computer, but it was dead and silent. Pulling out a hand communicator, he flipped it open. "This is Agent Jones, what's the deal with the computers, Smith?"

Rhin blinked first at the communicator that worked through a level seven jammer, and then to hold back amusement at the names of the ICS agents.

"I turned them all off." Smith’s voice sounded strained.

Jones held the communicator away from his face and looked at it with annoyance, then pulled it in closer and spoke again, "Why?"

These guys don't waste much effort on elaboration, do they... Rhin watched her readouts but kept her ear on the conversation -- such as it was. Her heart was starting to slow again despite all the adrenaline that had rushed through her due to the explosions. Fight or flight, but not stand still and watch readouts. She tried to control the trembling in her fingers by doing harp exercises.

"The computers are off because whatever else that explosion did, it triggered a system-wide virus infection. Multiple aspects. Worms everywhere. I deactivated and squashed those that I first found, but there were too many of them for me alone. Aspects of Hydras... I need to get more help before going in again. Shutting off the computers halted the spread until we can plan a defense."

Jones stared at his communicator, face blank. "Oh. How many people do you think you need?" Jones moved his attention to Rhin, who felt his stare and glanced up from her readouts. When she met his gaze, he raised one eyebrow in inquiry. For a moment, he was the Sergeant that she'd helped many a time in the unit, and she knew what he was asking.

"23 comes first to my mind," she admitted, "then Jacine. But..."

There was a wordless growl from the communicator that surprised Rhin. From the look on his face, Rhin could tell that Jones was also startled. From the com, Smith's voice came out, "I'll find my own programmers. Smith out."

Rhin looked at Jones, who was still holding the com. Slowly, he shut it and put it back in his pocket. He shook his head in answer to her unspoken query -- he didn't know what had angered Smith.

With the moment of tension gone, despite the threats still surrounding them, Rhin couldn't help but chuckle at the ICS agents. Jones raised his other eyebrow and a slight grin relieved the severity of his face. Rhin laughed again, "Couldn't you guys find anything better than 'Smith and Jones'?"

The corners of his mouth twitched, then Jones laughed as well. "Actually, 'Jones' really is my name. It's 'Masood' that's not. And as for Smith..." The amusement drained from his face, and a dubious expression took it's place. "Well, 'Smith' was the number one Caucasion last name in the last census." Jones shook his head, then looked beyond Rhin, "Do we know what caused the explosion?"

"I'm rather afraid we must have." Azami's voice, hoarse and strained, broke into coughs after the short statement.

Rhin turned and saw her friend leaning on Valdoon's shoulder, while Michael supported another officer, and Colonel Tsai stood with obvious pain. All the officers except Valdoon were covered with grime and ash, burn marks on their uniforms and skin. Trickles of blood showed shrapnel hits. It took all the willpower Rhin had not to go to her friends, but rather to remain at her post. She dropped her eyes back to the readouts, confirming their steadiness, then raised them to her friends again. Michael smiled at her in reassurance, then he gave a loud sneeze.

Azami hadn't stopped coughing, and the other two officers were obviously having trouble breathing. Even Valdoon coughed a couple of times. Jones' eyes narrowed, "You're not coughing from the dust."

Michael responded in a fairly normal tone, "Poison gas..."

Valdoon appeared both startled and worried -- they obviously hadn't had time to brief him.

Jones flipped open his communicator again, "I need a detox unit in sector six immediately. Medical personnel are to stand by for three patients coming in." He looked up at the group. "Mendi, you'll stay here and report. The others to detox. Where's Lieutenant Bonner?"

Valdoon made a small gesture. "He's dead. The explosion..."

"Right." Jones was continuing, but an exclamation from Rhin stopped him.

Rhin clarified her dismay, "There was a jump in the readings on Bomb 5."

Jones took the two steps needed to be at her side. She indicated the readings that were now back to normal again. "It was just a brief..." The readings on Bomb 2 jumped.

"Sh..." Jones activated the wire coms, "Chief Brody, we're getting jumps on the bombs. Yellow lines on Band 3. What's your recommendation?"

The Chief had been talking with his squad the whole time Rhin and Jones had been dealing with the other events. His voice came back immediately, "Deactivate the jammer and we try to disarm the bombs now. I think the jammer is triggering a warning alert in the bombs."

Jones stared off at the far wall for a moment. "Recommendation accepted." He nodded to Rhin, who deactivated the jammer. There was a brief jump in the readings on all bombs, and she held her breath. Nothing happened, and she looked back at Jones, who let his own breath out in a sigh. He spoke into the com, "Jammer is off. Begin disarmament."

The Chief started issuing orders to his squad, and Rhin listened for any that would affect her readouts. When the detox unit arrived, her attention decreased as she gave quick glances to her friends.

Michael switched his concern between Azami and Rhin. He was desperately relieved to see Rhin again -- it felt like it’d been ages. He watched as Rhin kept her attention on her job, though he could tell she was also worried about them. He longed to go to her and reassure her, but not while she was working. Azami was looking almost weaker than when she’d gotten the Winter Plague. Barely a year ago, and now this. And it’s only been two since we... since they persuaded me I was boyfriend material. Are relationships always like this? It hurts to see them hurting. But he already knew that he never wanted to be without them. They were a part of him, now and forever.

The medical personnel helped Azami, Tsai, and Corporal Siegh onto stretchers while they gave them oxygen. Michael moved over to hug Azami, and found a small red-haired lady there before him. Rhin clung to her friend desperately, then let go. Azami smiled at both of them.

When Azami and the others had left, Rhin turned to Michael, and he enveloped her in his arms as he’d been longing to since he saw her. "Rhin...," he murmured as he stroked her hair. Then he turned away as a giant sneeze made its way though his lungs.

Jone's asked, "Mendi, what is with all the sneezing -- and why do the detox units show you having only a trace of the poison that's in the others?"

Michael turned slowly at the sound of a voice both familiar and unfamiliar. He kept one arm around Rhin, but she wiggled free after a quick stretch to kiss him.

Sergeant Jones was at the control panels Rhin had been monitoring, his eyes carefully watching the board, but his attention waiting for a reply to his question. Rhin moved beside him to take over her job again, and the Sergeant stepped away, watching Mendi now. Michael didn’t reply for a long time, trying to figure out what was wrong. This wasn’t the soldier he’d known.

Jones gave a wry twist of his lips, showing he noted Mendi’s scrutiny. "Allow me to introduce myself, again. Special Agent Jones. In charge of this situation." He didn’t say anything else, giving Mendi another minute to absorb the news.

Michael’s hackles were rising at the mention of an agent of the ICS -- his family had had too many problems with them to take encounters with any of the agents easily. But Jones wasn’t Gerald... And Michael wasn’t Jacine or their mom. He wouldn’t trust this ICS agent, but he could work with him. He flicked his eyes to Colonel Valdoon, who nodded slightly as their gazes connected. Michael could read the strain in his Commander from having to work under the ICS -- and taking commands from someone who used to be one of the lowest ranks in their unit.

After another pause as Michael's own ideas of rank readjusted, he answered the question Agent Jones had asked earlier. "The sneezing’s a direct result of the poison. My body reacts... strangely, to various toxins. Airborne toxins, like a gas poison, are expelled as soon as they are detected. An analogy would be close to an allergy."

"Some allergy," Valdoon muttered, impressed.

Michael grinned at him, but his thoughts were somewhat grimmer as he remembered the pain shooting though his body -- almost crippling with each sneeze, fading to throbs with every heartbeat. It was only his long experience of ignoring pain that he could even stand up. His deeply buried instincts wanted to smash something to distract from it, but he would never allow that. He trembled slightly, remembering the one time... Michael shoved the memory out of his mind, it was over. And the Trio had persuaded him that it wasn’t his fault. But the memories... Michael suddenly longed for Tamlynn, to have her sweet arms around him, reassuring, stabilizing.

From Tamlynn to Jacine, Michael remembered his sister. "Any word on Jacine’s condition? Or 23’s?"

Jones’ eyes narrowed, and Michael held his breath -- the agent had heard something, now would he tell him?

The ICS agent turned to Rhin, "Can you concentrate on that with all this?"

Rhin’s eyes jerked up to focus in surprise on Jones. It was a legitimate question, she knew, especially with her longing desperately to hear his answer. Her attention was only half on the readouts now, unlike before. She brushed a finger across the lines holding steady, and answered honestly, "No."

"Humm."

Rhin didn’t look up, as Jones considered his options. She thought she knew what he’d do, and tried to console herself with knowing she’d find out later. But 23... Her thoughts turned to worry for her friend, and she forced herself back to the readouts with an effort.

"I believe Lieutenant MacArthur was waiting for something to do..." Colonel Valdoon strode off without waiting for a comment.

Looking up to see Jones’ reaction, Rhin saw nothing on the Agent’s face that she could decipher. Michael broke the growing tension with another small sneeze, then he sniffled a few times.

"I think that should do it."

Jones glanced at him, then laughed shortly. "Major Shea, I’ll be back in a few minutes. Mendi, you come with me and give your report and observation on the explosion."

The two men left, and Rhin settled her thoughts on the readouts. As the deactivation was proceeding, all the bombs were giving slight jumps on different lines, but none were in the danger points. Colonel Valdoon came back with Lieutenant MacArthur, and Rhin briefed him on the procedure, and watched for a few minutes to make sure he had it. The physical deactivation would be completed within the hour, and then the squad would package each bomb, or portion of bomb, in heat-resistant foam, force sealed on the outside. The packages would then be sent to the labs for further examination in secure conditions and shielded rooms, and material analyized to try and determine where they came from and who might have made them. As additional precaution, the base was going to remain evacuated for the next 24 hours, and bandwidth monitoring would take place for 48.

When Rhin looked up from the readings, Michael and Agent Jones were also standing there. To herself, Rhin frowned very slightly. She was normally able to tell when people came and went. Michael, for all his size, moved quietly and had startled her on more than one occasion. But she had formerly always been able to tell when Sergeant Jones was around.