Hikaru and Jasleen were sitting on opposite ends of a table in their apartment. Between them was a 19 by 19 grid with black and white stones placed on various intersections. Snuffels sat nearby seeming to watch the game with great interest.
“Something’s bothering you.” Jasleen did not look up from the board as she spoke. On the other hand, Hikaru did take her eyes off the board long enough to look at Jasleen.
“I suppose you could tell by the way I was playing,” she said.
Jasleen nodded. She picked up one of the white stones that sat in a pile at her elbow and placed it on the board. Jasleen and Hikaru were playing the ancient Japanese board game go. The rules were simple: players place stones one by one until one player manages to surround the other’s stones with his own. The strategies behind the game were so complex that even today, no computer had ever been built which could anticipate more than a few moves in advance. The Japanese believed that the way one played the game reflected one’s view of life. Hikaru had been playing the game all her life, and so she would recognize the style of any previous opponent without being able to see her opponent’s face. Jasleen was starting to get the idea of the game as well.
“Is it about that suit you found?” Jasleen asked.
Hikaru nodded and placed a black stone on the board. She was winning, but the victory was not nearly as easy as it had been before. Jasleen had improved greatly in only a few weeks of playing. “They found the remains of Joanna’s DNA on the suit,” Hikaru said. “There was a lot of dried blood on it as well.”
“But you still think there’s something wrong?” Jasleen placed another stone. She was being cautious in her moves.
“It’s hard to put my finger on it.” Hikaru frowned for a moment in concentration, then placed one of her black stones in Jasleen’s territory. If she did this right, she would capture several of Jasleen’s pieces. “How’s the work going on those brains?”
Jasleen sighed. “Not well. There are billions of pathways, and they all work together to form the brain. Having one of them out of place would change the makeup of the brain altogether. That brain I’m working on must be a few orders of magnitude more complex than a Cray supercomputer. I’ve been able to isolate regions by function, but not much more. I still can’t believe that it was created by humans.”
“Maybe it wasn’t at that,” Hikaru said. “I’m sure the Skedar or Maians would know a thing or two about creating such a brain.”
“That would imply that United Motors had contact with these aliens a long time ago, wouldn’t it?”
Hikaru nodded. “It’s scary to think, but UM might have been in contact with aliens since the last century if aliens helped them build bio-androids.”
Jasleen placed a stone and neatly thwarted Hikaru’s attempt to capture her stones. “No use worrying about it, I suppose. We don’t want to start getting Mirror Syndrome.” Mirror Syndrome was a CI term used for extreme paranoia. In the edgy business that they engaged in, CI agents could easily fall into the trap of losing trust for everyone, including close friends. Everybody had to take it seriously, and so Hikaru didn’t smile. She merely placed another stone and then began to gently scratch Snuffels’ ears while she waited for Jasleen to make a move.
All right, Joanna, let’s see what made you so famous around these parts. Hmmm…big file you’ve got. I guess that’s only natural for someone who saved the world from being enslaved by aliens from outer space. 26 years old when you got your callsign. Not as young as me, but still young. Your measurements are 5’7” and 34-28-34…oh, this was back in the day when CI was on that stupid inches and feet system. Let’s see, multiply by 2.54, carry the 2…nice figure. You would have filled out that suit pretty well back when it was still in one piece.
Broke the learning curve in training. Well, you did exercise 53 in 3:47. Sorry, Joanna. I’m afraid I broke that record. Couldn’t manage to break some of your others, though. They’ve stood for over a decade. That initself has to be some kind of record. I wonder how much being a bio-android mattered. I’ll have to ask Dr. O’Connor. Dad must have jumped at the chance to see you in action.
Says here you are considered dead after an explosion during one of your investigations into United Motors. Well, if Logan’s information is right, they knew everything that you were doing at any time. It wouldn’t have been hard to arrange your death. You were only looking into a case of industrial espionage, but you must have gotten close to something they didn’t want you to see. Doesn’t take a genius to guess what that might have been.
Body wasn’t recovered. UM probably has it now. I wonder what happened after that. Maybe they just recycled you. I have the feeling that if we found you, we could unravel a lot about this whole business. Well, don’t worry about that. If I know Dad, he’ll turn the world upside down and shake it to find you now that he has some inkling about where you are.
Hikaru suddenly turned from her computer screen and narrowed her eyes slightly. Then she smiled slightly and turned in her swivel chair to face the entrance to her apartment, crossing her legs in the process and leaning back. Then she tapped a button on her desk. The door slid away to reveal Logan standing just outside with his hand still raised to ring her doorbell. As usual, he didn’t show any sign of surprise. He simply let his hand drop and stepped through the door that had opened up before him as if sensing his presence.
He turned to glance back at the door as it slid shut. “I didn’t think it was possible to hear a person approach through that door.”
“It isn’t,” Hikaru said as she stood up to walk to the kitchen. “But you walk too heavily. I could feel your footsteps right through my chair.”
“I was never the top stealth agent anyway.”
“No, thank you. I’m just here to tell you that you have a mission.”
Hikaru made an inquisitive sound as she opened her refrigerator.
“There’s a hostage situation. Negotiations have broken down. The subjects made completely unrealistic demands. Either they’ve lost touch with reality or they never intended to be talked down in the first place. They’ll have to be taken out.”
“What’s wrong with sending in a SWAT team?” Hikaru asked as she emerged from the kitchen shaking a bottle of orange juice.
“Your particular expertise is required.”
She glanced at him for an instant to confirm her suspicions. “One of those, huh?”
Logan nodded. Hikaru looked down at her still unopened bottle, then shrugged and brought it along as she walked out of her apartment towards the elevator to mission central.
Today, one of the local malls had been taken over by armed hoodlums. Perhaps a better word to describe them would have been terrorists. They certainly did not seem to be interested in the usual concerns of a criminal. None of the innocent civilians held hostage were robbed nor even physically harmed. They were simply herded into the largest store in the mall and made to sit down. A security guard had been seriously injured, however. Cameras located in the mall had clearly caught him pulling a gun on one of the terrorists and shooting him squarely in the head. The terrorist had reeled back and then quickly disarmed the guard.
Ever since saving the President’s life over a decade ago, the Carrington Institute had been privy to the inside story on developing current events and provided help from time to time with technology gained from theMaians. CI theoretically worked pro bono—although it was sometimes compensated for the trouble—which meant it had no government oversight. Direct and overt action by CI was so rare and so consistently successful that rumblings about vigilantism were kept to a minimum. Although few outside the Institute had any inkling of what its agenda might be, the top officials in the government were convinced at any rate that endangering human lives or national security was not part of it.
And so, after Carrington had made a few phone calls and demonstrated clearly that the ones behind the current hostage crisis were not quite ordinary humans, he had secured permission from the head of the FBI to send his own operatives to deal with the situation. Of course, nobody in the lower levels of the government was allowed to know that outsiders were becoming involved, so Hikaru and her group had to pose as FBI specialists and convince the police on the scene to let them handle the situation. That proved to take some time. FBI uniforms and badges weren’t quite enough.
Hikaru looked up as she saw the Chicago police chief approach. “Just got off the phone with Mclean. They confirmed you. Sorry about the delay, but I wasn’t informed that you’d be coming.”
“Not a problem,” Hikaru said. “You’re just doing your job.”
“I’m still a little unclear on why the Feds want to take care of this,” the chief admitted.
Hikaru looked at him for a moment. He was a thoroughly competent looking man and was not the type to be asking such questions just because his feathers had been ruffled by Feds interfering in his jurisdiction. Hikaru decided it was safe to trust him with a little information. “You’ve seen the surveillance videos?” she asked. The chief nodded. “So you know that one of them was shot in the head and survived apparently no worse for it?”
The chief did know, and he nodded somberly. “I thought it might have been a fluke of some sort, but apparently not. Is there something I don’t know?”
“If there is, it’s classified.” Hikaru smiled apologetically. “Don’t worry about it. We’re just as concerned as you are about getting those people out. You just make sure we aren’t bothered while we’re in there.”
The chief shrugged. “Good luck.” With that, he turned and walked to where his SWAT team was waiting to give them the news. Thoroughly competent. Hikaru stood up from where she had been leaning against a nearby car, picked up a case lying on the ground which contained her X-33 and began to run towards an unmarked van that was parked at the corner. She pumped her fist three times in the air to indicate that clearance was given. The back of the van immediately opened and a group of operatives dressed in SWAT uniforms hopped out. The team leader was an experienced CI agent with the call sign Derelict—although the man himself was an Olympic quality athlete. Hikaru heard his voice over her earpiece now. “Central, this is Alpha Team Leader. We are live. Repeat. Alpha Team is live.”
“Copy that, Alpha Team. Switch on video.” Like everybody else, Hikaru tapped a button on her belt that activated a mini-camera attached to the left side of her head. By this time, she had caught up to the rest of her team jogging along.
“What do we have on intel?” she asked Derelict.
“Six bogeys total. Four with the hostages on the lower level of Sears. Two standing guard on the upper level. Armed with AK-57s and wearing standard army vests. They’re all stationary.”
Hikaru nodded. That was more or less what they had all expected. “So what’s the P.O.A.?” she asked using the short term for Plan Of Attack.
“Double flash-bang on the lower level. Snipers will take out the higher bogeys with throat shots.”
“Cruel, but effective.”
“Uh-huh. You’re going to be taking the other four from the side just like we talked about. We found a blind spot where you can fire from behind some clothes. Hokkaido will guide you there. It’ll be a little tricky, but I heard you broke the record in the stealth test.”
It really was inevitable, Hikaru thought wryly. As the only person around who had ever defeated a bio-android in combat, she now had the rather unenviable role of being the first to attack any other bio-androids that caused trouble. She could already sense that the other agents were curious about how their new hotshot teammate would perform on this mission. The situation was not really as dire as it might have appeared at first. The bones of her opponents were impervious to standard gunfire, but tests carried out on the robber’s skeleton had indicated that a 9-mm rifle bullet fired from an X-33 would penetrate far enough into the skull to destroy the brain. Hikaru herself was wearing body armor that was light and flexible but strong enough to stop at least a few shots from the weapons that the terrorists were carrying. Bio-androids did not really have any advantage in strength over a human, and at any rate, Hikaru had proven that it was possible to outrun one of them. In addition, Hikaru had the element of surprise on her side.
They had reached the garage by now and stopped while everyone got their gear together. Hikaru took the opportunity to assemble her X-33 which had remained in its case because CI regulations did not allow outsiders to see it. The team’s two snipers were already entering the building and taking up positions. Stamper, the demolitions expert, began preparing the two flash-bangs on their carts. The other two team members waited patiently.
“Let’s have a time check, Central,” Derelict said.
“Roger that. We’re sending out the synchronization signal. The time is 15:23:45. Mark.”
Everybody glanced at their watches and confirmed that the time had been set correctly. Hikaru had finished putting together the X-33 by now. She sighted along the top and squeezed the trigger twice to check the mechanism before loading in a magazine. Stamper had already finished and was putting one of the flash-bangs into her pack.
“All ready?” Derelict asked.
“Good to go,” said Stamper.
“Ready,” Hikaru affirmed.
“Snipers, what’s your status?”
“Hokkaido is in position. Target in sight.”
“Raven here. I’m up close and personal with my target’s Adam’s apple.”
“All right. We’re going in.” Derelict turned to address Hikaru seriously. “We’re counting on you to kill those four. If they’re really bulletproof, there won’t be anything we can do if things go wrong.”
“I’ll get them,” Hikaru affirmed. “I also broke the speed shooting record.”
“That’s always useful.” They were coming within visual range of their targets now. Derelict gave Hikaru a quick pat on the shoulder. “Good luck.” With that, they all headed to their assigned positions. For Hikaru, that meant walking right into the Sears entrance within the mall, staying low and to the side to avoid notice. The terrorists and their hostages were too far within the store to see her entering even if she sauntered in completely upright, but reducing one’s profile is a good habit in any combat situation.
“Hokkaido here. One of the lower level bogeys just headed out to the bathroom. Yuurei, he’s headed to your position.”
Hikaru looked around for a half panicked instant before getting up to sprint into a nearby store and slide to lie prone below the window display.
“Raven here. I can see him. He’s walking past the store that Yuurei jumped into.”
“Will he notice if I scope him?” Hikaru asked.
“Negative. He doesn’t look worried about that.”
Among all the other high-tech gadgets agents had, one tool that they never went anywhere without was a small mirror attached to a stick that could be used for looking around corners. Hikaru used it now to peek out her window display. “I see him.” She paused to look more closely at the image in her mirror. “What happened to him? He doesn’t look too happy.”
“Started walking like that suddenly,” Hokkaido answered. “Something gave him a case of diarrhea is my guess.”
“I guess we can’t expect him to come back for some time,” Derelict commented.
“Maybe his comrades won’t be either,” Hikaru said. “Team Leader, if I take him now, I’ll only have three to deal with at flash time. Request permission to eliminate him.”
“Stand by, Yuurei. Raven, where’s the restroom?”
“Three stores down from the one Yuurei is hiding in. She’ll be walking away from the hot zone.”
“Hokkaido, what did he do before leaving his position?”
“Shouted something to the others. Jumped up and down a few times to show how serious he was.”
“What was their reaction?”
“Amused. Like they knew it was going to happen.”
Hikaru heard the calculations being made in Derelict’s head. Finally, he said, “Well, we may be in luck. Yuurei, permission granted to eliminate bogey in the bathroom. Is he in there yet, Raven?”
“Affirmative, Team Leader.”
“Go, Yuurei.” Hikaru didn’t wait to be told twice. Getting up to her feet, she ran silently away from Sears until she saw a sign directing her to the men’s room.
Cautiously entering the bathroom, she saw nobody standing at a urinal. Looking at the stall, she saw a pair of feet pointed toward the door. A moment later, she heard some distinctive sounds that told her exactly what he was doing in the stall. She almost felt sorry for him. Slipping forward on her silent feet, she stood in front of the door. She stopped a moment to collect herself, then raised her foot and kicked the door in. She waited a moment while her victim gasped and then struggled to raise his gun and pants at the same time. Finally, she gave him a double tap on the head, and he fell back. She heard her father chuckle back at CI headquarters.
“Well done, Yuurei.”
“What’s so funny?” Derelict inquired.
“Caught him with his pants down,” Hikaru said sweetly.
She heard a dry chuckle from several team members. “I’ll have to see that on replay. Now get back to position.”
Hikaru grinned and then carefully exited the bathroom.
She wasn’t smiling by the time she entered the store, however, as focused as she was on keeping her movements as quiet as possible. After what seemed like hours, she reached the refrigerator section. This was as close as she could safely get to the terrorists without risking notice. She would have to rely on Hokkaido and his superior vantage point to guide her. After a moment of standing where she was, however, she received no signal that the sniper could see her. These kinds of maneuvers were some of the most dangerous ones that could be performed in a hostage rescue mission. Her teammates did not know where she was and would not even know if she were unexpectedly killed. She in turn did not know the locations of anyone who might spot her—thus rendering her effectively blind—and could not verbally communicate with her team for fear of the sound of her voice alerting the terrorists to her presence. She finally decided to tap out a call for help on her transceiver in Morse code. When she got closer, the clicking of her button would be too loud to use even that.
Hokkaido, this is Yuurei. Can you see me.
“That’s a negative, Yuurei. Alpha Team, does anybody have a visual on Yuurei?”
Negative answers quickly flew in from everyone. “Central, we need a location for Yuurei,” said Derelict
“Roger that, Alpha Team Leader. Beacon trace puts her 55 meters south of Hokkaido.”
“That’s too far away from me. The second floor is in the way. She needs to get within 40 meters of me.”
There is not enough cover for me to go forward without knowing where my targets are looking.
“None of them are looking your way right now. You can move to a better position.”
When Hikaru looked, she could see an aisle lined with refrigerators on both sides that would afford enough cover for her to advance closer. She would have to step momentarily out into the open in order to get there, however. She spared an instant to pray that Hokkaido was watching the terrorists carefully before quickly sprinting across to the aisle. Once there, she began moving north towards the terrorists and their hostages.
“I see you, Yuurei. You’ve got a pretty good path to your position. You need to turn right and move all the way to the wall before turning left to keep advancing. There’s only one bogey who can possibly see you at any time. Don’t move yet.” Hikaru obligingly froze in her tracks. “Go.” Hikaru moved.
“Now, you want to move into the last aisle. Yes, that one. Now turn right and head towards me again. It’s all right. You’re clear. Now hide behind those fridges.”
Hikaru crouched behind a row of small refrigerators meant to be used in college dormitories. She had seen her targets several times by now, but so far, they had not detected her. She could not be more than 20 meters away from them by now.
“Now here’s the question: do we move you any closer or not? Your ideal spot is behind that column around the corner and a little to the left. That’ll put you right on top of them at flash time. Go ahead and take a peak now.”
Hikaru peeked and saw what Hokkaido was referring to. The upright column was easily wide enough for her to hide behind even though she would be less than 10 meters from the nearest terrorist. A quick scan confirmed to her that this would be no harder than running past a patrolling guard. She withdrew back.
“What do you think?” Hokkaido asked. “Can you make it?”
Hikaru tapped her head twice to indicate an affirmative answer.
“All right. They’re getting bored and starting a conversation with each other. You can make your move…now.”
In another second, Hikaru was sitting with her gun feeling that if the column were not behind her back, she would practically be sitting among the hostages.
“Alpha Team, Yuurei is in position.”
“Copy that, Hokkaido. Stamper, what’s your status?”
“Flash-bangs ready and waiting.”
“All right, acclimation period begins. Muffs on at 16:12. Flash time is 16:13.”
The time now was 16:10. Derelict clearly did not wish to leave her sitting close to the terrorists for too long. She mentally ran over the position of each of her targets from the glimpses of them she had received. She decided to only use one shot on each terrorist. The flash-bangs would leave the victims disoriented for about five seconds. As a stretch of time went, that was fairly long, but she would be wasting time by double-tapping each terrorist. She would just have to trust that the technicians had known what they were talking about when they told her that one shot would do. Her recent experience in the men’s room certainly seemed to indicate so.
The CI version of the flash-bang on this mission resembled a remote-controlled car. The explosive device was within that car. Stamper had set up two flash-bangs, the second to explode just as the victims were recovering from the effects of the first.
“Alpha Team, muffs on.” At this command, everyone on the team put on a pair of earmuffs with the exception of Hikaru who had already been wearing them in order to avoid making noise as she put them on near the terrorists. “Take it away, Stamper.”
“Roger, Team Leader. Flash time minus 30 secondsÖ20 secondsÖ10 secondsÖflash time in 5, 4, 3, 2, 1.” The cars containing the flash-bangs were parked some distance from the area of engagement, but at Stamper’s command, they leaped forward at top speed. This was rather noisy and immediately attracted the attention of all the terrorists. That was the point, of course. After three seconds, the terrorists were all looking at the cars which came zooming towards them. And then they were all staring at the peculiar globe that was fired out of the top of one of the cars. And thus they stared directly at a flash of light so bright that it could cause retinal damage at extremely close range. The bomb also created a bang equivalent in strength to some of the louder sections of a rock concert. Everyone was completely disoriented.
Except Hikaru, of course. Her ears had been protected by the earmuffs, and she had been facing away at the instant of the explosion. She whipped herself around the column now and quickly acquired her target. He fell with a bullet in the back of his head. Without wasting time to make sure he was down, Hikaru acquired her next target and pulled the trigger. Right then, a beep in her ear told her that the second flash-bang was about to explode. She quickly closed her eyes until she felt the slight vibration that told her that it had exploded by now. This explosion would buy her less time because the lone surviving terrorist was not looking directly at it. She found him and fired. He only survived by a pure stroke of luck. In the confusion created by the flash-bangs, a civilian had bumped into him and knocked him slightly to the side. Hikaru’s bullet hit him in the elbow. It was good enough to make him drop his rifle. Realizing that he was at a disadvantage, he immediately began to run. Hikaru swore and gave chase, ripping off her earmuffs as she ran.
“Raven here. My target is down.”
“Hokkaido. Same here.”
“Central, Yuurei has taken down two bogeys and disarmed another. We are evacuating the hostages.”
“Copy that, Team Leader. We’ve notified the police outside to stand by.”
Out of the corner of her eye, Hikaru saw her four team members emerging from their hiding places to run towards the hostages. She concentrated on the last remaining target to be taken out who was now hiding behind some ovens. These terrorists had been smart enough to bring sidearms. The last terrorist pulled out some sort of handgun and was now firing at her. He didn’t hit her because he had simply put his hand around the corner to fire at her. He was firing blind. Even if he had hit her, Hikaru’s body armor was sufficient to stop these bullets. Taking aim, she fired. The fact that her X-33 made absolutely no noise while as it knocked the gun out of his hand would have struck some as eerie. Hikaru quickly ran forward. She could see the terrorist in the back of the store searching for some sort of weapon. Putting a bullet into his knee, Hikaru stepped closer. “That’s enough,” she said. “You’re under arrest.”
“The hell I am,” he snarled at her. “You’ll have to kill me.”
“I’d rather not, but I won’t hesitate if I have to. I’m not overcome with guilt after killing your other three friends.”
The terrorist smiled. “What does it matter? There are more where I came from.”
“So that’s why you’re doing this? It doesn’t matter if I kill you because you’ll just be cloned?”
The terrorist was grinning openly now. “You think so, do you? Despite what you might think, we’re not that stupid. We have a better cause.”
“Well, then, why don’t you enlighten me.”
“Why not? Couldn’t hurt to have you a little more paranoid than you are right now. We’re trying to draw one of your people out of hiding.”
“You’re trying to get one of our agents to blow his cover in order to protect civilians? Sorry, but we’re trained not to do that.”
“The particular agent we’re looking for isn’t undercover. And we know her. No matter what happens, if an innocent is in danger, she’ll do everything possible to protect that innocent.”
“So it’s a she, huh? Since you’re feeling so talkative, why don’t you tell me the name of this female agent who is hiding from you.”
The terrorist’s eyes were glistening now. “Why not? You can help us find her.” He stood up painfully and took a step closer to Hikaru. “Her name is Joanna Dark.” With cat-like speed, he pulled out a combat knife and lunged at her. Hikaru was faster. She pulled the trigger and planted a bullet squarely in his forehead.
“Well,” she said philosophically as her last target fell forward to the ground, “I was wondering why Joanna hadn’t left a skeleton behind.”