Just Because You're Paranoid

From the Story Arc: The Charge of the Labcoat Brigade

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Next Story in the Arc: Artificial Intelligence by Krasniy Zakat (Thursday, February 08, 2007)

(posted Tuesday, February 06, 2007)

“I still think this is a bad idea,” Vickie muttered to herself, fingers flying over the computer console that handled JTF security systems. Compared to the setup in the CCCP base….this was a string across the door at knee-height with jingle bells on it.

On the other hand, CCCP had every reason for paranoia. Who’d want to hit the JTF base?

Still, Sasha and Sofia had, she suspected, bullied a rattled and unsure Shrike into letting her go over this. And she was not comfortable with this. CCCP did not come marching into someone else’s base and “Take over security—“

“What are you doing?” came the roar from the doorway.

And this is why it’s not a good idea—

“Uh….I gather Shrike didn’t tell you?” she said, her hands motionless on the keyboard, staring at an irate Booster Max.

And then she just hunkered down and waited for the explosion and the ensuing debris to stop falling out of the sky.

An hour later, and many, many diplomatic and soothing words on Vickie’s part, and Booster was finally calmed down. She kept repeating the mantra “I’m only here as a consultant, because I know security systems,” and eventually he seemed to believe her. He also believed her comforting assurances that he had not done a bad job, that there was no reason to think that anyone would ever target the JTF, that in fact, if she had been in his shoes she would have kept the base just as—relatively—open as he had.

“….so what I have on Wendel’s disappearance is this,” she said, finally, showing him the security camera tapes from the front desk. Which were, as she had expected, snow.

He blinked, and frowned. “Camera on the fritz?” he asked.

She shook her head. “Nope. Tape was erased.”

His eyes widened.

“And not just that one,” she continued. “All of them.”

His fist crashed down on, and then through, the top of the desk. His face grew red. Vickie, winced, even though she had been expecting a fairly violent reaction.

“So it was—“

“And attack, yes.”

“And no way of knowing—“

“Not exactly true.”

He stopped dead. “I thought you said the tapes had been erased.”

She nodded. “But I am a technoshaman. I talk to toasters. I cast spells on wiring. And—“ she raised a finger “—I invoke the spirits of long-dead videotapes. Observe—“

Her fingers flew on the keyboard….which she had reprogrammed with the arcane symbols she used in her work. Symbol by symbol she wrote a spell to the recorders; in magic, whatever had been there was always there…if you knew how to talk to the thing…if you knew what to tell it. Even Sasha would probably agree with this. Erasing a tape only meant that you scrambled the bits of iron on it. Reverse that…

Spells in place, she hit the command to the tape machines to run backwards. When the got to the end, she “dismissed” the spell, and pushed “play” for the first one, the one for the camera pointing at the front desk.

There was poor Wendel, sitting and looking rather lost at the front desk.

She ran it forward until she caught a glimpse of someone else on the tape. Someone coming in through the front; she stopped it, ran it back a little, and made note of the date/time stamp.

And frowned, even as Booster shrugged dismissively. “That’s just Bella—what—“

The figure in the CCCP uniform handed Wendel a white paper sack, and moved into the back carrying a slim briefcase. Wendel tore into the bag and began devouring the sandwiches that were in it. He followed them up with a little paper carton of milk, then sat there for a moment, looked once over his shoulder…

And suddenly, fell face-forward onto the desk.

”What the hell—“

A minute later, an entirely unfamiliar figure in some sort of all-concealing armor came into the picture, slung Wendel over his shoulder, and moved out of the picture again. Quickly, Vickie checked the other cameras, which all covered entrances and exits. Nothing.

Booster was staring at the frozen camera view in mingled disbelief and horror. But Vickie’s hands were already flying across the keys, normal commands to the system of course. “If they didn’t go out the door, there’s only one way they could have gone,” she muttered to him, keying up the ‘Porter records, looking for a date/time stamp around the same time as that tape. Finally…

“Bingo,” she said, pointing. “Three to port out, Terra Volta. Wendel, that guy and—“

“---Bella—“ Booster choked. “—but—“

“Not Bella.” Vickie opened an outside link from the console into the net and ran a search for what she knew would be there. And it was, both CNN and the local PNN station. The recorded version of what had been a live interview with Larry King, Bella talking about Bestial Boy…

She pointed to the date/time stamp. “Not Bell. Or…not our Bell. Our Bell was in a studio over at PNN talking to Larry King on remote when that…person…waltzed into your base. Probably the one miscalculation in her whole plan, because she didn’t know this was going to happen.”

“But how—we check for these things---IDs, scans—“

“Because that person is the one creature that could pass all of those, Booster,” Vickie said quietly, keeping her own seething anger under a tight façade of control. “That is Bella’s clone. She calls herself ‘Belladonna Nova,’ and the last time I heard about her, she was running a very profitable little information brokerage in Nerva.”

“So it was an attack,” Booster said, tightly. “And a kidnapping.”

She nodded. “Looks that way. Intended. They wanted someone. Maybe not Wendel specifically, but someone from the JTF.” She drummed her fingers on the console a moment. “I wonder….if besides taking something….they left something…” Again her fingers flew over the keyboard, filling the screen with symbols. But this time she was talking to the entire base.

Places took on some of the attributes of living things over the course of time. Took on the character of those who lived there, held memories trapped in their walls. And when so many people that came in here were imbued with and practitioners of magic, well…sometimes places did become somewhat alive.

So not she was talking to the base, waking it up a little, coaxing it. Tell me, she said to it. Tell me, show me. What is in you that doesn’t belong here? What is in you that might cause harm to your people?

Repetition was the key in spellcasting. She typed in the spell over and over…three times…six…nine. And on the ninth repeat, suddenly the keyboard locked up, the symbols vanished from the screen, and were replaced by a floorplan. A floorplan with a single, pulsing red dot in it.

Vickie moved her cursor over the room in question. But Booster already knew what the answer was. “That’s my office!” he shouted. They both headed for the room at a run.

Once there…you couldn’t mistake the pulsing hum. Nor the bright red glow around the wastebasket.

“It’s in the wastebasket!” Booster said, but Vickie held him back.

“No,” she said. “Not in. I think it is the wastebasket.” Her hands moved in patterns and something else showed through. Something....a device wired to two large cylinders.

“Better get your bomb squad in here, Booster,” she said, slowly backing away. “I’ve left my list of recommendations for tightening your security in your email, and Shrikes. I think I’m done here.”

“Uh…yeah,” said Booster, reaching for his PDA. “Thanks Vix.”

“Don’t mention it.”

She could not get out of there fast enough. She had some calls of her own to make. “Sasha, Sofia? You were right…”