Ghosts

From the Story Arc: A Day in the Life...

Previous Story in the Arc: Rocket-Sliding by Petrograd (Monday, September 18, 2006)

(posted Thursday, January 25, 2007)

- This follows the events in Countdown In One of Two - http://www.cccpgroup.us/story.php?ID=1035 -

*Reagan International*

It was nearly midnight when Petrograd touched down on the slick metal grating of the helicopter pad. The FAA, always wary of kids with jetpacks and hero liscenses, had used the old scare-tactic and kept him on a high-altitude path the whole run. With temperatures around 20'F on the ground and a cutting wind, his armor was easily in danger of icing over, not to mention freezing him alive, kicking off one of the countless Rube-Goldberg mechanical safeguards running through his suit. Excess heat from the jetpack poured through wires embedded in his body, leaving him patched between near-searing heat and the bitter cold of his bare metal plates. He wouldn't freeze to death, or even lose altitude to ice buildup, but it was hardly pleasant.

The man standing on the tarmac cut an impressive figure, even in the dim, snowswept floodlights. He was wearing the cheap black suit that this country's internal police had apparently adopted as a uniform, but it would've been hard to mistake this man for a customs agent or narcotics officer waiting for a clandestine cesna two-seater. He was taking the blizzard in as if it were a pleasant spring breeze, not to mention dwarfing the armored figure at over 6'6". Even his long black ponytail remained streight in spite of the heavy gusts. The metallic figure descending from the sky, clattering to a stop, and stumbling towards him through the driving snow phased him no more than a circling hawk might have.

"Mr. Derinsky?" he leaned forward slightly and shouted above the wind, his first acknowledgement of the weather.

"Da!"

The man flipped out his FBI badge, holding it close to Petrograd's visor, and then pulled a small card from his pocket, glancing over it quickly.

"Hosteen Stormdance.... it says that you're supposed to remove your shoes."

The helmet made what might've been a guffaw into a glare, as it did with any expression. Petrograd had taken up chuckling his smiles to others, but this was hardly the time for it. Huddled in six inches of snow with even his cold metalic arms crossed for warmth, burning and freezing at the same time, he just tilted his gaze down at his armored legs and back at the tall man in utter disbelief.

Hosteen just turned and waved him on, stepping towards the blocky corrugated iron building near the pad. Through a set of double doors in walls far thicker than those visible outside, the two men almost stepped into another world, a brilliantly warm concrete hallway trimmed in white and horid institutional green stretching off in antiseptic fluorescent brilliance.

Stepping into a coffee nook by the thick, bolted doors, Petrograd could only glance at the sparse, numbered doorways before the large man had placed a fask of coffee in his hand.

"What is this place?" Petrograd asked, the flask locked into his helmet and glugging quietly in spite of his speech.

"A staging area. Nothing too serious, garrages, a light armory, briefing rooms and the like. The Metahuman Division is national, so we like to be able to move out in a hurry."

Derinsky nodded, always appreciative of good planning. "So, what do you know of the Program?"

Hosteen grunted quietly, ducking into one of the nearby offices long enough to grab a manilla folder before continuing down the hall. "Not much. A little money shifted, a few suspicious reports. How about you?"

Petrograd nodded, following along as he unsnapped a small rolled case from his jetpack and removed the thin sheaf of papers. "My new rank is having some priveleges. No one to sign off on my copy, da? Still, is nyet much, just some eyewitness accounts of what our few alumni could to remember."

The expansive man frowned ever-so-slightly. "Ivan, these people have been ghosts for years, even before the Rikti War. Although it is in a very large way what we do, Spook Squad doesn't have the resources or the clout to play Hunt the Snipe inside the beltway. With a trail this cold, I need to know your intentions."

Petrograd nodded sharply. "My new comrade, I do not intend to be here for long, just long enough to exhaust my political contacts. Is very short list, but fortunately for us, old age seems to proliferate: they have been around. We should never to need more than ourselves and a few moments begged of an expert. Consider it a paid vacation, allowing an old man his whims, da?"

Hosteen nodded. "We can start tomorrow, but first I have something to show you." He gestured to a plain door and followed Petrograd inside.

"A public restroom." Derinsky stopped abruptly, staring past the sinks at another man. His streight, mousy brown hair was swept back, granting a temporary respite for his sharp, inquisitive eyes. His pocket-laden olive-drab jumpsuit was unfamiliar, American, but instantly recognizable for the pilot's garb it was, and hung loosely across his stout, workmanlike frame. A white scarf traced his proud, sharply curved jawline admirably.

He stared into the mirror, his mouth wide in amazement. "How..."

Hosteen shurgged impassively. "It is not a difficult thing, for one to appear as himself."

But Petrograd was no longer listening. He stared down at his soft, dextrous fingers, remembereing every millisecond twitch and fine manipulation of the controls from his training. Looking slowly between them and the mirror, he brought the pale, fleshy ghosts towards his visibly bewildered face.

The restroom echoeded with ten soft clacks of metal on metal, and the silence had not long returned when a soft, hollow wheezing with a metallic burr settled across the room. Not many had heard Petrograd cry.




*Edwards AFB*

The V-22 Osprey had faced a long and troubled development, but after years of budget cuts and redesigns, not to mention the harsher interuption of the Rikti War, the bird was finally approaching production. With the safety issues all supposedly worked out and worried about political apathy, Bell/Boeing had even sent one of their prototypes to DC. Now, if you had enough clout, you could muscle a spot in line along with senators eager to impress their mistresses and countless good-ole-boys who wanted to see what 'the bus' could do. General Toliver Johnson stepped aside at the cabin door, giving Eli Hunt his choice of seats. The two men weren't exactly qualified to run the navigation and radar seats, but rank hath its priveleges, and the two test pilots didn't seem to mind. The ride was graceful and smooth as the plane tilted its rotors forward, soaring high above the Patomac.

The general, bundeled in an SAS sweater and off-duty slacks, stared doubtfully through the observation windows at the city below. "You really think this thing'll help us in Iraq?"

Eli shruged. "The whole damn country is FUBAR, and as long as my new boss keeps ignoring me, not much will. But greater manuverability can't hurt." The hawkish little man swept his gaze across the vista, eventually settling back on the pilots. The second-seater was a tall midwestern blonde, football-player type, but he could've sworn he'd seen the head pilot's face before. If a little less colorful... "What do you think, Captain?"

The pilot grinned, pacing the plane through its manuvers, and the seat groaned unnaturally as he pulled the sticks. "I think, comrade Secretary, that we had better VTOLs than this in '67, and I would nyet have taken your job back for all the Tsar's liqour."

The reinstated Secretary of Defense grinned wider. "Ivan, you crazy SoB, I was wondering when you were going to rear your ugly head! Damn good holo, if I may say so, spitting image of your file photo."

Derinsky kept his eyes on the controls, speaking only through the coms. "I was nyet aware I had one... of any ways, the helicopter is clean, I swept it earlier. Are you having anything for me?"

Hunt sobered immediately. "You know I could be fired just for talking to you, Ivan. Dissappeared, even..." he paused before nodding to Johnson, "But I don't want scum like these Program boys in my military. When we land, Johnson here is gonna forget his breifcase. There's not much in it, just some out of date transcripts and server logs from the JCSTRB database. Not even classified."

"JCS... Vigilence? Your former Amerikanski anti-superhero unit?"

Hunt cracked a grin. "Now, I wouldn't say that Ivan. Still, this was the superterror threat database... illegal immigrants, known malefactors, ex-Russian nationalist communist aggitators... but the most interesting files are right on top. Known superterrorist entry alert, armed and extremely dangerous, kill-on-sight. Two, to be precise, one before the Rikti invasion and one after. Any guesses on who they are?"

Petrograd paused in thought. "Murdock? And Zach?"

Eli smiled fully. "Good thinking. Now, the very strange part is the source of the files. The database server was open to all appropriate offices. We were building a data pool, not playing politics. But these two came from the Joint Chiefs' Domestic Terror Response Office. Which, according to HR341 in the wake of the Kansas City bombing, was suggested and denied as an unnecessary expense. Its just a name."

"So they are operating a completely false office within the Pentagon?"

Eli shook his head. "Nope, not at all. They just stamped a name on it to make it sound official. Its an old espionage trick, you put the right adjectives on something and people think its official."

Petrograd turned back to look the graying man squarely in the face. "I... I do nyet know how to thank you for this, comrade."

Eli nodded impassively. "Of course you do. I want them out, and fast. Homeland Security and NSA may have jobs for those freaks, but I sure as hell don't. Besides, even with this, you know I still owe you for Striga. If you hadn't helped clean up my mess, God knows what idiot'd be in my office."

After the Osprey settled on the pad, and the General and the Secretary had returned to their car, the two pilots walked to their jeep.

The blonde, athletic one looked down at his compatriot. "A very short list."

Petrograd nodded, absently flicking the keys to the large man and clambering into the bare metal passenger seat. Staring at the briefcase in his hands, he finally turned to Hosteen.

"Are you having a hacker?"




*Washington D.C.*

The two software techs leaned over the dated desktop PC in the back room, their various typed commands doing nothing for the blue screen. The tall, lanky one pshawed, pushing his thick-framed glasses back onto his nose. The Kinko's manager finally left in frustration, setting the 'Out of Service' sign back on the door as he left.

Petrograd, resplendant in his illusory blue buttoned shirt and pocket protector, leaned against the heavy desk. "I am still having no idea how you do that."

Hosteen flicked his ponytail behind him, folding his hands quietly in his lap. "People want to see things, things they recognize. Things they understand. You only have to let them."

The scrawny tech shurgged, his weaight slightly bowing the tabletop. "What about cameras?"

The Navaho tilted his head curiously. "Cameras? They always believe the first thing they see." The blue screen settled back into the cheesy screen-saver, green numbers and Asian characters flitering down across a dark black background. "Ah, here we are. Feed him the data."

Petrograd stared. "From unsecured malfunctioning computer in an Amerikanski corporate office?"

Hosteen raised an expansive black eyebrow, moitioning to the screen. For a second, staring deeply at the flickering numbers, Ivan could've sworn he'd seen them.... grin.

"Petrograd, meet Fafnir."

"The screen cover?"

Hosteen shrugged. "I apologize, he's being melodramatic. Ever since NetFlix began streaming, he's been working his way through movies by category. I believe he's currently in the technothrillers. And still enjoying the Matrix theme, I see."

Petrograd stared. "So you have shy hacker who hides behind glowing numbers and prefers we transmit data through an outside link?"

There was the grin again, the curve of numbers and characters, but only for a moment. Hosteen looked back at the computer, "No... for all intents and purposes he is the graphic. People who liked the movie.. or movies download it, and every time it runs he takes up the slack in the CPU and RAM over their cable lines."

The word 'Maschinegeist' flickered behind Petrograd's eyes, sneaking its way subliminally from the snaking letter on the screen. It was actually rather annoying.

Stormdance took the papers from Ivan's briefcase and fed them into a nearby fax machine. The screen filled with windows, instantly covering one another, filling text-boxes, passwords and codes becoming longer as they stacked.

"He really doesn't have to do that, but its how it looks in the movies." Hosteen shrugged.

"What is he?"

"As near as we can place it on our timetable, Fafnir started as an advanced Unix build on a secure German Army server programmed to self-code Command-and-Control systems for the EU. Then a Japanese industrial spy hit it with an eveloutionary viral bot-net so he could sell the code to the JSDF. We found him three months later. We give him plenty of bandwidth and storage back at HQ, and keep hard-copies against corruption. In return, he helps us out from time to time. Ah, he's found it."

The most prominent window on the screen showed blurry security photos of John Murdock, with precious few fields filled in. A large red K-O-S stamp appeared beneath his photo. A nearby window showed a similar profile of Zach.

Petrograd skimmed it. "So... Fafnir is, what is word... self-aware?"

The letters in Murdock's file shifted and grew, one line becoming

COGITO ERGO SUM. SO, I SUPPOSE, YES.

Ivan turned to the computer, a defensive hand burshing his towards his radio, and eventually continued. "Pryviet tovarisch, is good to meet you. Have you found anything about the office which submitted them?"

THESE FILES WEREN'T SUBMITTED. THEY MATERIALIZED. ABRAKADABRA, THEY'RE THERE.

"A hacker?"

CUSTOM CODE, HAND WRITTEN, AN AMAZING PIECE OF WORK.

"So... you can nyet track it?"

More of the file twisted.

HEH. AMAZING FOR '98. LEAVES MORE CRUMBS THAN AOL, ESPECIALLY IF YOU LOOK FOR WHAT IS MISSING. A BIT HERE, A BYTE THERE, A NICE SILOUHETTE.

"Can you to find it's source?"

NOT LIKELY. LONG DISCONNECT, AND BESIDES, IT IS ONLY A SHADOW. BUT I WILL KNOW IT WHEN I MEET IT. OR IT'S WORKS.

Petrograd watched Stormdance, as if looking for approval, before speaking again. "Can you to search Pentagon personnel files?"

Holsteen raised an eyebrow. "That's National Security you're..."

The file was already twisting.

NOT FROM HERE. INTERNAL NETWORK, AND THE DEMONS AT THE DOOR ARE MEEEAAANNN. BUT...

The disk drive spun up to speed as the letters of the file faded back into their original form. After a moment, the tray ejected a plain, rewritable DVD. The computer screen faded back to a desktop, and after several flashes of the Recycle Bin returned to normal.

Hosteen shrugged defeat. "I'll get the car."

Petrograd watched him walk for the door.

The tall man looked back at him from the hallway. "Now that he's interested, Fafnir's going to do it one way or another. This way I won't have to answer any questions when the Pentagon's secure lines thermite themselves."




*Subbasement F, The Pentagon*

Through at least ten seperate layers of checkpoints, no one had looked past the badges on the two air force cadets. The legitimate clearances helped nudge them along, but Hosteen had a genuine talent for being unremarkable.

They had gone through cup after paper cup of coffee while Fafnir dragged his nets in the mainframe. It took three hours in all before it began to display results.

Ivan scanned them wordlessly. Finally, with various similar reports splayed out in front of them, he turned to address the screen. "So," he spoke into his throat mike, "these have been modified by the same program?"

Stormdance stared evenly at him. "While I enjoy your superstitions, Fafnir cannot hear you. This small avatar is hardly intelligent, just enough of him to find what we need. So, what do we have?"

Petrograd scrolled through the files, occaisonally dragging one open. "Over two dozen names, modifications highlighted. Majors, Colonels, even a retired Brigadeer General. Every file is cuting off at a point, quoting... Executive Order 11130, merely saying 'On Special Assingment.' Some as far back as '96, some 2 years ago."

Hosteen nodded. "Lyndon B. Johnson, Appointing a Commission To Report Upon the Assassination of President John F. Kennedy. Still, sounds official. How do you know these aren't the test subjects?"

Ivan flicked through the reports again before opening a word-search for Murdock, John. "Is bolshoi simple, da? First, no one on this list is having combat expierence. Dacha patriots. Desk drivers. Of second..." Murdock's Pentagon file flickered up. "Ah, you see? No modification from hacking friend. They fake KIA situation in real life, so files are official."

The shaman nodded slowly, taking it in. "So, what do you want to do?"

Petrograd thought for a moment, then handed his borrowed laptop and a stack of folders to Hosteen. "These are all files we are having on Program, and I will to send printouts with these names to... that printer, there. Update it, prepare it to be seen. Oh... and make sure are plenty of adjectives." He added a Homeland Security guidebook to the stack.

Hosteen grinned broadly. "And what, my friend, are you going to be doing?"

The Russian grinned, for once able to forego the idiotic chuckle. "I will to be playing 'fill in blank.'"

The tall Native American drew himself up and moved towards the printer purposefully.

Petrograd glanced across the files, his thick, heavy fingers hovering over the thankfully sturdy government keyboard.

Adjectives... words... things people wanted to see.

AWOL. Document Tampering. Misappropriation. Murder. Treason. Conspiracy to committ superterror.

The Pentagon Incident.

Relations... Suspicions... Wanted for Questioning...

Dotted lines criscrossing in the consciousness, appearing as a solid shape. No, words were not a problem.

* * * * *

Hours later, Hosteen came back to compare notes. They admired each-other's work, the wolf and the coyote circling.

The Navaho nodded approvingly. "Not a word of dishonesty. Not a shred of evidence, but not a single outright lie."

Petrograd looked up from the laptop, equally pleased. "Bolshoi impressive. You have managed to spin entire investigative castle in sky, without mentioning single word of methods or investigators."

Hosteen flicked his ponytail absently. "We both know this will never hold up in any court. And if they dig, they will find us, one day. Even Fafnir grows. So... what do you intend to do?"

The Russian drew into himself, his face, for the first time in days, as passive as usual. "If I am not mistaken..." he said slowly, "this has moved out of Spook Squad's jurisdiction."

Hosteen Stormdance smiled broadly, his perfect teeth mirroring the grin of a bleached skull. "Yes... I believe it has."




*Silver City, New Mexico*

The gaunt, grey-suited man climbed into his rented sedan, pushing the air conditioning to full to combat the desperate heat. His was a rare breed: NSA officially had no field operatives, but in these trying times...

He dumped his falsified INS badge into the glovebox, no longer necessary. True, he had lost the trail of the rogue LiberaciĆ³n de Colombia supers, but he HAD found their point of entry. The 'coyote' had talked before too long, but he knew the man was holding back. With the border-runner on an yet another black helicopter, his Gitmo count was up to 32. 32 solid leads, just waiting for a break from the interrogators to close in for the kill. 32 terror cells just waiting for him. True, some of them were taking longer than expected to crack, but he was doing good work, keeping his country safe, and he was proud.

As usual, he pulled the orange envelope with his next assingment from beneath the seat, much thicker than usual. He whistled between his teeth. This was a big one. Superterror on an industrial scale. Conspiracy Theory level stuff. He'd watched the attack on the Pentagon on Fox News, but he'd had no idea it ran THIS deep.

The note from his boss said it all.
Edgars from Homeland has the same info. I want this before him, or you're back to wiretaps. ~RT

The man grinned broadly as he reached the list of names. Ex-military. Probably trained in resisting interrogation... he could almost hear the helo blades spinning.

The plain brown sedan slid into reverse and out of the cheap motel, dissappearing down the dusty highway. In the desert, a coyote howled.