The Mission (conclusion)
It only took a second for the light under the screen to flash and the light on the door to turn green. I would much prefer if all the locks were so simple.
I grasped the handle with my narrow fingers and slipped through without needing to open the door that wide. On the other side, everything was illuminated. I tried to find a darkened scouting corner but it didn't make much difference.
It was bigger than the data systems room, with levels and consoles. Girls, all facing away from me, sat at consoles. Some were typing away. Others were blankly staring into the screens. Still others were monitoring those who were staring and working on other systems. A bustle of activity. I was fortunate they were all so consumed in their various tasks that they didn't seem to notice me lingering to one corner. I crept towards an empty console nearby and crouched down low.
Despite being a woman, that didn't make me any less of a target for the Embracing Sisterhood. The least experienced commanders wanted to know why they couldn't just throw female operatives in costumes at missions. Turned out there was something more to an Embracing Sisterhood girl than her clothes.
So many ways of trying to trick the ES. Just avoiding detection worked most of the time. So far, the illusion technology had never been caught. Reason enough to make sure everyone had it.
I used the still-functioning tap to get into the systems without a password. It took me a little while to figure out what the computers were for. I felt a chill and recorded what I could.
The systems were related to nanotechnology. Near as I could figure, the staring girls were recent converts and the others were involved in controlling them. It didn't take long before I put together I was sitting in a room of soon-to-be sleeper agents, recently converted who would "escape" without mental effects and try to get back into normal society. A number were even blank former soldiers given new instructions.
I panned my head across the room to make sure no one was watching me. To them, I was just been another team member toiling away.
Since I was in the system, there was plenty I could do with that. I pulled out my thumb drive and decided how to start. First of all, they would be getting a special mix of hostile programs. And I would be getting all the personality programming shutdown codes.
I let my monsters out but kept them on a short leash. When it all came down, I wanted to make sure it all came down at once. With the hostile programs I should be able to keep a connection even if anyone found the tap and tried things before I was ready.
I felt my energy kindled. I was on the offensive and it felt great. Sure, it wasn't entirely the plan. But it didn't matter. I slipped out as silently as I'd come. Not a Sister was disturbed and no one turned to look.
Back in the hallway, I sifted through what I now knew were the priority areas in special projects. The black area would require a lot of backtracking. I hoped it was worth it. At least I wouldn't have to worry about the cameras. But I kept my ears trained to any shifting doors about to open or boot steps down the hall. All was serene for the moment. I heightened my alert.
I made it to the next location without crossing any paths. The door was the same type as before. Before I could go to work, the electronic lock clicked and the door started to open. I attempted to hide behind it as much as I could. I'd have to make my way down the hall as calmly as possible and double back to get in. I didn't want to be too close.
I heard the door stretch out wide behind me. Boot steps through the opening. It held open. I could tell someone was standing behind me. Hopefully nothing out of the ordinary about my back. I kept moving swiftly.
Then came a faint voice.
Could've been said to anyone. But that name. In the back of my mind I had to wonder if it was an alias I'd used once on a mission. I had so many.
Quick feet towards me. I couldn't take a chance. I turned swiftly. I looked towards the approaching figure with a calm expression. I kept my expression as I realized who was coming towards me.
If there was a face to the Embracing Sisterhood which few people saw, then it was staring back at me. As a regular operative, I'd seen her before, both in rare photos and through the scope of a sniper rifle. She looked smaller like this, up close.
I avoided taking a step back as she neared me. I knew she was too close but I could only stand there, awaiting my fate. If I was to have any chance then I had to play my role.
Her hair was long, curving in the back with light, reddish-purple streaks at the edges, like bolts of weird lightning. She had a slight figure with a flat-chest, even compared to my own. She had brilliant, jade eyes which focused right on me. She was dressed in a lavender kimono with glinting, silver and blue roses down her sleeves like special jewels. I was very careful with the angle of my device. I would have to tuck it away with a motion like scratching my ear but I could give it a few frames of her visage.
She had a deep, dusty skin tone and a narrow face. It was clear, as most suspected, that she was ethnically Japanese. I watched her and considered ways I might overpower her with what close quarters fighting I knew. She looked tame, unnaturally calm, but I was watchful.
Her gaze lingered for a longer than I would've liked. With a nod of my head, I asked her, "Yes, Sister?"
She cocked her head the other way but kept quiet. Did I have the balls to knock out the woman who was essentially the Queen of the Embracing Sisterhood? I hoped I wouldn't have to find out. I hoped she found the cover of 'Karen Ross' convincing.
With careful words, she asked, "You are Karen Ross, right?" There was something more in her looks. Something which made me feel tension deep in my stomach. She was testing me. But I had no idea how.
I looked her in the eye, cocked my head too, and answered, "Why would you call me that, dear Sister?"
It was only in that moment that I realized what she saw. It was the illusion. Of course. The image was taken from a captured Valkyrie. Sure, they'd had their memories altered as much as possible and the gaps in time they were gone were filled as best as possible. But I was wearing the face of a real person and it was possible that she knew who I was personally.
I wondered if I should've added a familiar smile or something to that effect. If what I'd said was enough for her, she didn't show it on her face. She kept the same stoic gaze and skepticism. Then she gave a slight smirk, noting, "My apologies. Of course. Where are you headed….Leslie?"
I narrowed my eyes and told her, "That's not my name. What are you playing at?"
This time, it didn't take long for her expression to shift. This time to one of delight. She snickered and fanned a hand. "Sorry sorry. You just never can be too sure, Nora…even with Valkyries. Forgive me."
I nodded back softly but kept my same expression. She rolled her eyes and noted, "Stand down, sister. I'm done testing you. I'm satisfied you're not a spy or some man with an excellent disguise. I'm eager tonight to find one of those. They're delightful. So close to being one of us…surely they just want me to help them the rest of way, wouldn't you agree?"
Now it was time for the slight smirk. I gave it for just a moment and she delighted in it. Despite my success, I kept my guard up. I had to be careful how I responded. No one on the other side knew her real name or even the name other sisters used for her. There was only her code name, Tsumiko.
Tsumiko settled into a slight laug and then let it go before stretching a bit. I continued by asking, "So, did you need anything of me, blessed Sister?"
She stared at me for a worry-inducing moment before she restored her smile and said, "I could use some company. I'm touring the new projects to see how they are progressing. But I assume you're down here on some serious business and you need to hurry off…"
I could smell a trap but I didn't bolt. I followed her statement, "Actually, I just finished what I needed to do. Heading back. So I have some time if it won't be a hindrance, dear one."
She clapped her hands lightly and proclaimed, "Wonderful! It is always best for a sister to go with her fellow sister. Follow me."
I lingered near her, close enough for a good sleeper hold but far enough that I could dash out of the way if she tried something. That she wanted me to tour the projects I wanted to visit anyway felt too coincidental.
But I'd made it this far and I could only hope I had the skill to make it the rest of the way. It wasn't a long trip to the first door. It had been one of the visiting sites on my list. She opened it for me. I kept away from the door as she opened it and checked the area several times. We did pass a few Sisters along the way but the benefit of having one of the most influential Sisters around was that the skeptical looks vanished.
The first room had several water pumps and even more Sisters at computers. Tsumiko asked for "status" as I moved around the room. Water warfare was an old weapon for the Sisterhood. They once used simple squirt guns as their method of conversion with nanites in a liquid suspension. And then there were the tampered water supplies which couldn't be used by anyone. This appeared to be something different. It didn't take me long to figure out how.
One of the Sisters at the computers took it upon herself to explain the goal. Keeping nanites active at high altitude. Cloud seeding. Turning rain storms into conversion methods. Fortunately, from the sound of things they were having trouble with producing enough nanite lines. Even in the worst days of the conflict, neither side was willing to let loose self-replicating nanites. Mutually-assured digestion, they called it.
I considered taking out my video device but I couldn't be assured of filming without getting caught. I also considered sabotage. Sure, they weren't ready to release it yet but this would be very dangerous once they got around the problems. One of my hostile programs could misreport the temperature of the nanite-makers. Too hot and it would cause malfunctioning or dead lines. That would only be a temporary block. Getting into the system to delete core data would be a bigger setback. But it would also be a lot harder to do with Tsumiko nearby.
I had one play. Distraction. I was still tapped into the central computers. I could send a false report into the systems. But if I pulled out my device and a moment later the whole thing went nuts…it wouldn't look good for me. Tsumiko kept glancing my way. The Sisters at the computers were focused on their job. Different idea…
There was an option for my device to send video to any connected display. That command was easy to engage without suspicion. My neck tingled as I watched the unattended monitor in front of me show my video device's screen in a window. I didn't get too close to the computer. Using it as a guide, I maneuvered through the complicated systems. I had to work the device by touch and not look like a suspicious sister with her hands always in her pockets.
Tsumiko made her way to one of the tanks and inspected it a bit as one of the sisters flipped through some paperwork. It could be Tsumiko was testing me. I'd have to set the action on a delay, like with the sleepers. Report of a flaw in the nanite systems. Temperature monitoring sensors gone bad. Of course, nothing would be wrong but I could fake the temperature so it always baked bad nanites. Eventually they would find the override, but it would kill their nanite-making abilities for a good while. At the same time, the data systems were vulnerable. I could corrupt the key data, or at least the encryption keys, rendering it useless.
The problem was that were far too much to do just wiggling my fingers around and staring at the screen.
"Nora…could you come over here please?" I knew that would happen. I looked up from the screen and got rid of the window. I kept my hands in my pockets as I approached. When I was close, I reached deep and came out with a bright red piece of candy I'd forgotten about which must've been in there for ages. I displayed it to Tsumiko, who smiled and waved a hand.
"Thank you, but I'll pass. Although we're going to visit the little ones, so they may enjoy it."
I suddenly felt a chill over my entire body. I could guess at her meaning but I feared the worst. The Embracing Sisterhood was not above all sorts of experimentation on children. Little kids as weapons. And then there was talk of strange hybrids. My stomach filled with disgust. I slipped the candy away and leaned closer to where Tsumiko was gesturing.
She explained, "You probably know we've been working on nanites which can pass by any detector or warning system the other side has come up with. They are quite small and appear as grains of dust to a scanner. We've only managed to implement them down in this area of the base. One more protection against intruders. Slowly converted into one of us and they never even realize it's happened. One of my favorite tools. I really wish I could spread it everywhere."
I felt tense. I knew what she was saying to me. But I still had my mind and I knew my goal. I hadn't been changed. But I would have to be careful and self-aware of what I was doing at all times, just in case. Of course, what she was saying was probably just be fishing for a reaction from me. Checking to see if I would respond with alarm, confirming any lingering suspicions she might have. I responded with a careful nod, adding, "A shame it is not ready for that yet, dear Sister."
Tsumiko smirked and tapped one of the tanks. "In due time…" She then assigned me to go confirm some data with a worker towards the back. Giving me space. A comfortable level of space. Probably testing me again. I'd have to work at the task and find some way to finish my job afterwards.
I played the good Valkyrie, going through the data and then reporting back to Tsumiko, who delighted in a video of cells shifting. There was some talk of whether a subtle plague could work in place of massive lines of nanites dropped from clouds. Infect male carriers and then various methods from there. Keep them as carriers until a command was issued. Make sure they only passed on female offspring as a very slow plague.
They were the kind of things which had been heard in passing before. It was another thing altogether to hear serious talk of it and the how and where of planning. I offered to parse some of the data and Tsumiko gestured to a nearby computer I could use.
It was within the line of sight of several workers. A challenge. I opened many windows and started the task I was supposed to do. At the same time, I hid the window I needed to work through and issued various commands. It would take a long time to get the corruption of the keys and everything else I wanted to do. But it would be worth it.
To add a further distraction, Tsumiko talked to me every chance she got, not only drawing attention to me from the others but requiring I pay attention to her words.
"I remember long ago when I was young…I had dreams of a world like this. One of my favorite dreams was that I could make anything I said happen. Like…'the world is all good little girls' and I could open my eyes to all the new girls…Pure bliss…"
I kept my gaze on Tsumiko. I had a thought. I told myself it was a stupid thought. I shouldn't have tempted fate. But I had to ask. I had to know. I had to ask her, "Why do you do it? Why do you convert the others? There's been so much war. So many have been changed. There have been many who have been lost to both sides. We have superior numbers and technology. Why keep the battle going? What's in it for you personally, if I may be so bold?"
Not a good idea at all. But I figured I would never get another, better chance to ask. Tsumiko looked at me with narrowed eyes. A mix of suspicion and disappointment in her gaze. I held my look and tried to imbue it with curiosity.
She asked me first, "You doubt our purpose?"
I lied carefully, "I believe in our purpose but I came to that decision on my own. I know you chose this path as well. I'm just curious how and why you made that choice."
Tsumiko folded her hands. "Choice is a curious thing. There are times when I doubt it exists at all. I knew all my life that I was made for this. I am here because I must be. My only goal is the complete victory of the Sisterhood. Only by embracing humanity as all kindred sisters can we move forward with the beauty of tomorrow. A Valkyrie who does not feel that same truth of purpose makes me look twice with skepticism." Her eyes took upon a calm, serious darkness.
Still, I didn't waver as I replied, "A leader who cannot express deeply, truly, and fully the wisdom of that beautiful tomorrow is but a shadow beside what that reality could be."
I folded my arms. Tsumiko approached me and looked carefully. She peered at my body and dug into my eyes in her gaze. I should've been terrified. I should've recanted my words and bullshitted something clever. But I held my ground. Even if I wound up imprisoned in the base jail there were ways I could get out of that. My mind swirled with possibilities of what might come next.
The tension ebbed when Tsumiko gave a soft puff through her nose. Then it relaxed when she noted, "Such a bold Valkyrie you are, Nora. But I still see your loyalty to the cause. And a true maiden must do more than just agree with her elders. Still, make sure you don't leave respect behind. And yes, a true leader knows her purpose and can express that wisdom. If only words alone could make the others see the truth. Perhaps…I should put your boldness to the test…what things do you think we are doing wrong which we should fix?" She stepped lightly around the room, circling towards me. Our conversation had drawn all the others off their tasks. I figured such confrontations were rare. I'd have to play my endgame carefully.
I retreated a bit in my words, "I am neither a scientist nor a strategist, dear Sister. I am but a warrior who has seen day after day pass between our side and the other one. Back and forth, till so many have been lost to both sides. I just want the suffering…of my sisters to end."
I felt optimistic I hit the right nerve. Tsumiko's eyes softened and she gave a faint nod. It was as though all our back and forth words had crystallized and she could see me in familiar terms again. "That is what I want most of all. One unified sisterhood. Taking in all our little ones. All our sad ones. All the ones who do not know their kin but will soon enough. We will embrace them and wipe their tears away."
I clenched a hidden fist and let her lead the enthusiasm. From her words, she pondered whether to give a speech before returning to her work. I wouldn't have much time. I worked what I could with the screen available. The lingering attention meant I could only keep the window open half the time. Far too quickly, I heard Tsumiko call to me, "That should be enough, bold little Nora. We have much work left to do. Come with me."
I didn't feel confident in the work I had done but it would have to suffice. Tsumiko led the way out of the room as I removed all evidence of my tampering and set my plan to execute on a sufficient delay.
The route to our next location took me away from the positions on my map which I thought looked promising. This in itself gave me a glimmer of hope but also a measure of concern. Perhaps I was too suspicious or Tsumiko had seen through my disguise and figured it all out. I could be going to a location more secret than all the rest or I could be going to my demise.
I held my breath as the new door slipped open. It had taken a little longer to open than the others and the scanner gave a few more passes of Tsumiko's arm before it decided we could enter. I doubted that this door would've opened with my usual tricks. Inside, I had to pause and gaze. Rows of adult to older men in a glass-covered children's play area. They moved quickly for their age with smiles on their faces. I wished I had the confidence to film it.
Tsumiko spread her hands towards the glass and announced, "Our new project. Each a very young sister with contact nanites in the guise of an unassuming male. We're training their personalities to fit in. Any touch they give a man causes him to be converted, never realizing anything has changed. A sleeper agent sister who has only has contact with other men. None of them realizing the menace in their midst."
I noticed a hot chocolate machine off to one side. I made my way over. Behind me, I heard Tsumiko call, "Get me one as well. I love chocolate." I poured out two cups. Then I glanced towards Tsumiko. She was turned away. I had a plan. Something in a deep pocket. I made sure none of the other girls in the room noticed me. I had to work quickly. I made like I was stirring a thick concoction.
I stepped lightly with both cups, my eyes on the one in my left hand. I gazed at it but tried not to look obvious. As I approached Tsumiko, I held out the one in my left hand with a warm smile. She looked at both then reached to the take the one from my right hand before I could say anything or come up with an excuse for why one was more ideal than the other. My lip quivered and I swallowed a lump in my throat.
I stared at the remaining cup and held it close to myself. Tsumiko looked at me calmly and raised her cup slightly with a smirk, noting, "Cheers…" I gave a little nod back and put my mouth to the lip of the cup. I mimed that I was drinking. I wondered if I could swallow and then find a way to spit later.
Then Tsumiko took a full drink of her chocolate. She swallowed it with confidence and then set the cup aside. She looked at me.
My cup was empty. I set it aside as well. She glanced around. No stains on the floor and my mouth was empty. She cleared her throat, ordered the other girls to keep their eyes on the test girls, and finished her drink before continuing, "Now, I suppose we should stop lying to one another. I know you're a spy for the men. I know you crept around the base and made it through the old areas before infiltrating this section. And I know that before you entered the base you were an effeminate man who did a great impersonation of a woman's voice. But all that has changed now. You're one of us. Not one of them. It's over…you can turn off that silly illusion."
She stared at me sharply. I knew she expected to see fear and confusion in my eyes masked by my training. She figured I probably still had some fight in me and she delighted in the chance that she might be able to break me. She looked out knowing just what she would see. The shock that spread through her eyes as she saw my true, relaxed expression was deeply satisfying.
Words failed her. I spoke instead, telling her calmly, "You have no idea who I really am…."
I flicked off my illusion for a moment, knowing the others were too far away to notice. Tsumiko staggered backwards, her mouth spasming like a fish's without water before she found the words, "You…how?"
I left her with the question as I picked up her empty cup and noted, "Won't matter soon because you won't remember any of this. Your drink..."
Her head quivered and she clenched her teeth, her words coming out softly, "No no. Not…possible…you drank it too. You had to…" I was glad we were off to the side of the room, where there were no others.
I displayed my empty cup, remarking, "You're right. I did drink it. But I put it in both cups…"
Her eyes widened and her expression went blank. A special control nanite set. She probably knew the type. Now they were moving from her stomach and all through her body. She could give the order to have it removed. But the nanites were made so she wouldn't. I didn't like them and this was the only set I had but, for someone like Tsumiko, I didn't feel as bad that they were inside her.
I could do anything with her. I could make her dismantle the entire Embracing Sisterhood project. But they would still be in place and someone else would replace her role. No, this would have to be a long game. I'd have to make sure Tsumiko remained for as long as possible. The perfect sort of sleeper she dreamed about implanting in the other side.
I would instruct her to ease security measures, redirect forces away from my extraction site. Make things a little easier for me. I could tell from her expression that she was trying to resist the efforts of the nanites on her brain and body chemistry. And no control nanite was perfect. It was like planning suggestions in her mind. She could theoretically reject them.
She clenched her teeth before saying, "That's a good idea. Probably wise…I mean…we're all girls. No need to be afraid of other girls." She was trying to work it through in her mind. Excellent.
She let me corrupt the shapeshifting little girls project files and gave herself the reason that, "We're probably better starting from scratch." I quizzed her for any other secrets. She displayed pride in all her ideas but they were not at the stage of the projects I'd seen.
Looking at her, I felt regret that she could only feel calm ease compared to her suppressed desire to throttle me and yell for guards. I told myself I'd get over it. As one last thing, I asked for a special document out of the base under her authority. The other girls were starting to get curious about us but Tsumiko's expression seemed to calm them.
As a final thing, I whispered in Tsumiko's ear, "By the way, my name is Captain Kallista Barrett. You won't remember it but I just wanted you to know…" I didn't have to say that but there was a bit of satisfaction in her eyes for a moment before the new memory was interrupted and she glanced around like she'd suddenly forgotten something. She waved it off, smiled at me, and noted, "Take care, Nora. I'll see you again soon."
With that, I began my route back to the surface. I was deep inside the twisting corridors of the base but, at the very least, I might be able to take one of the regular routes back. They might even let me out the front gate. But Tsumiko had seen through the Valkyrie illusion, as I figured. I didn't have a good plan for regular sisters who did the same.
I lamented I'd not been able to record much video, although I did take a few extra snaps before working my way out of the lower chambers.
I was near the data systems area where I'd been before when I heard that door click open and begin to swing. I dashed behind it and saw a flash of purple. I could tell immediately it wasn't Reena. Things would have to get a bit complicated.
I stayed where I was till she was almost out. Then I slammed her against the wall and dragged her back into the room. I wasn't fond of violence. I'd had enough of it to last a lifetime. But I knew she had to be stopped before she could alert anyone.
She clawed and fought against my hold around her neck. I pressed her into the floor with my body. She heaved me into the server rack, which broke a glass section, sending shards all over the floor. She tried to get to her feet. I kicked them out from under her and stood over her. She quickly locked her legs around mine and dragged me to the ground. I dragged her to the ground too.
We rolled towards the AC unit. Her forehead was bleeding and I figured mine didn't look much better. I heaved her at the closest one, which started to groan and shudder before cutting out. She tripped me up again before dashing to her feet and running for the other side of the room. Knowing she could trip all sorts of lockdown alarms, I chased her. I kept pace but right behind her.
We rounded the last corner as she we clearly going for what looked like a panic button. I could move in front of her and smash her into the nearest server. But I caught sight of Reena at the other end of the room. She looked terrified. I hesitated but only for a moment.
Another plan. Insurance. I'd set it up beforehand if I got into a situation. The explosives I'd set were tied to my GPS. Set to go if I was far away. Like the explosive tap in the server not far from the Durga. I took a few steps back and shielded my face. I hoped Reena would be far enough away then executed my plan.
It was a small but fiery blast which sprayed bits of metal and glass from the server, sending a tall flame nearly to the ceiling. The Durga Mori braced herself but was only momentarily stopped. Before she could push the button, the entire panel went dark, along with several of the room lights.
I reached into a pocket, clenched my fist, and smashed her in the face with the heaviest hunk of metal I had on me. This time, she went down hard. Reena sobbed as she hid her face behind the table. The fire was raging through the server and more lights were turning off.
I clenched my teeth. I had no obligation to give a shit about Mori or Reena. They were on the enemy side. But I found myself slipping Mori's slumping arms around me and lifting her onto my shoulders. She could easily choke me as soon as she woke up.
Straining and coughing, I looked to the edge of Reena which was showing. I yelled to her over the screeching fans and roaring flames, "Let me help you!"
She stayed where she was. I was sure I could hear her sobbing and I could see the edge of the doll I'd given her. I wasn't going to let her die here.
I crouched beside the table and ducked down. She pushed herself into the corner. The fire suppression system started screaming. It began spraying onto the fire but that didn't help much, not for this kind of fire. I knew the last option was to remove all oxygen from the room. Soon, the door would be completely sealed.
I stretched an arm out for Reena and begged, "Please. I don't want anyone to die."
Reena's mystical, wide eyes searched me. I could see the anger and fear. She didn't understand except that I had hurt her friend and now everything was scary. And I was the scariest thing of all. She looked down at the dolly, holding it close. I hoped that meant something. We didn't have long. Soon, because of smoke and the suppression cloud, it would be impossible to see anything.
I bent my hand out as far as I could without touching her. I thought I felt Mori's arms tense a little. More complication. I was about to give up when Reena reached out for me. Her eyes said she didn't trust me but she clutched the dolly close. Holding on to Reena, I ran as fast as I could through the smoke.
When we got to the door, the air alarm went off. I just had my hands around the latch as I started to hear a rush in my ears. I hoped I wasn't too late.
Air rushed through the door, trying to suck it closed as I pushed. Reena helped as much as she could but the force was overwhelming. The alarm beat was getting louder. Suddenly, hands on the other side struggled with us against the door. Gingerly, the door eased open and the three of us spilled through before everyone retreated and the door snapped shut.
The other sisters took Mori from my shoulders and milled about. I stayed by Reena, who had a big cut and smoke stains all over her face. I brushed her cheek and she looked at me harshly. I bowed my head for as much of an apology as possible. She looked down at the dolly and held it up to me. I shook my head and assured her, "Keep her. She's yours now." The memory of all that doll had been through was enough for me. Reena watched my face with a stern expression, which slowly softened. I couldn't be sure she wouldn't tell anyone what I'd done. But she put her head down and said nothing else.
This would be our goodbye.
I worked my way out of the crowd as the overhead lights began to flicker and a few powered off. I'd set the GPS just for this one to go off. I still had the C4 in the electrical area and the other explosive unit in the other server room (not to mention the additional sabotage on delay). They would be my way out.
I knew my illusion had to look weird, especially with all the fighting I'd done. I hoped there was nothing glaring but I had no mirror to check myself in, so I did my best to stay away from anyone who might notice me. Eventually, I made my way to the shaft I'd entered through. So many people were running about that no one saw me enter.
The calm stillness of the shaft was relaxing, even with the limited amount of light. I took the end of the rope from where I'd hidden it and looped it through my hook. This would be, I hoped, the last hard part of my exit.
I climbed slowly, especially with the first creaks of the old piping. I flashed my best light sources around and I braced myself against the side of the shaft to take some of the weight off the rope. It still felt like I was an inch from dragging the pipe from the wall. I could move faster because I wasn't checking for dangers. Still, it was a long ascent. When I finally reached the top, I gave one last good tug to heave myself over the edge. It seemed this was all the pipe had left. It tore from the wall, ripping a good bit of the concrete with it and tumbling over and down the shaft. I clung to some nearby pipes and sliced the cord before the pipe tugged my down with it. So much for that…. The pipe smashed on the bottom of the shaft like a bell slamming through the ground. It echoed through the entire chamber and, it felt like, through the whole of the Earth.
Sprays of water issued from some of the cracks. I moved carefully to over the edge. Sparks lit the corridor along with my small light. It didn't take long to get back to the access stairs. I hurried up them and made my way to the electrical systems. I hoped my explosives were still in place.
Once I was out of that corridor and clear, I found the most inconspicuous and darkened area I could find and shifted the GPS for the C4. The explosion dwarfed the first one because it took out several transformers in buzzing, brightly-colored swarms followed by a tower of flame. I felt a slight punch in my chest with the shockwave and then hurried away from the explosion.
Sisters of all types were everywhere. They swarmed and yelled and ran. They were armed but I was armed with a document from the leader. I found a window to check my illusion on. The smoke had changed the consistency, making the color of the illusion a little muddled. It would have to suffice. It was dark so I doubted most would notice. I hustled away from the data servers and back towards the chapel area. Once I'd made sure all my electronic sabotage efforts were active, I set off the final explosive. No sudden burst of fire. But I could hear an internal alarm from the server building. It was mostly drowned out by the raging flames behind it.
Dark, swift chaos swirled around me. Sisters from the rest of the base rushed in all directions, converging on the fire. They would quickly have it out. Many of the large base flood lights were out but the smaller lamps had their own internal batteries and would likely remain on at a diminished level. On foot would be too slow to get to the edge of the base. I'd have to get access to a vehicle. But they were typically stored at the other end of the base.
Fortunately, I had that official document. I sighted a small jeep barreling down a nearby road. I hurried over but it was too fast for me and was out of sight before I could flag it down. Luckily, another jeep was approaching me from down the same road. I kept out of the light to make sure the new problems with my illusion wouldn't be as obvious and called, "Fellow Sister!" to the jeep.
The jeep pulled to the side. Two short-haired sisters, Shieldmaidens, looked at me as I held my official paper in front of me and said, "Apologies, sisters. But it's an emergency. As you can already see, the situation is dire…" I turned towards the swollen flames. The two Shieldmaidens looked grimly to one another before nodding.
I was almost clear when one of them remembered a bit of protocol I'd forgotten. Even with an official order, any sister may ask to accompany another in an emergency situation. I could sit there and debate it but it would just give more time for them to look skeptically at me. So I went along. The sister with short hair almost the color of silver sat next to me in the passenger's seat. I kept calm with each glance she sent towards me. The other sister waved and hustled along the road on foot.
I took the roads with urgency but also care. If it was a desperate extraction situation then there was an antiquated Skyhook balloon I had which I could inflate (I mostly kept it as a good luck charm). But I really wanted to get to a minimum safe distance for the helicopter which dropped me off in the first place. I'd never used the Skyhook and there were so many unknowns. Like whether the jolt might break one of my bones and definitely whether the aircraft would be able to get low enough with the nearby mountains to pick me (plus the base had an incredible anti-aircraft defense system which I knew going in would be impossible to knock out).
I focused these thoughts as a look of intense worry for whatever task the Shieldmaiden probably figured I had to perform for Tsumiko. She didn't complain. She didn't gaze at me long. Her eyes were on the surroundings and ahead, especially with the limited lighting. She seemed like a diligent sister. I winced a little and promised myself I would do my best not to hurt her when we parted company.
Turning onto a straightaway, I slipped one hand into a pocket and carefully eased my tranquillizer gun so it aimed at the sister's side. I gave one last glance at her and fired a single shot. She only gave a slight flinch like she'd been bitten by an insect before she turned with a puzzled expression and slumped forward on the dash. I slowed and set her back in a position like she was resting before putting my gun away.
The guard post was coming up. I worked on the urgency in my expression and filled out a story about my "fellow sister viciously struck down". Since the order was vague, I could say I was in pursuit of a hostile party. But I could fall into the same trap which had forced me to take this sister along.
There were three Valkyries and a shadow of purple at the guard post. I should've turned around and tried for another but I knew time was running short. I glanced over at my unconscious companion and checked her weapons. I smiled when I found two small, non-lethal grenades. The road I was on was cloaked in darkness. I was a ways away but still close enough I knew I could hit near to the gate. I didn't like unknowns but chaos might play in my favor.
I made a right into the coverage of some trees and stopped the jeep. I crept around and judged where I needed to throw. I would have to divert the guards away from the post. I threw one after the other in high arcs. From a distance, one couldn't tell what they were as they exploded with a blast of smoke and blinding light. I hopped back on the jeep and took a side route to the guard post. By the time I got there, the girls were rushing back and forth and I was relieved to see the purple was just a window curtain.
I spun my tale of assault and havoc. Against the background of still burning flames, even Valkyries didn't question my story. They took the sister from my jeep and waved me on my official business for Tsumiko. I gunned the jeep out into the desert, following a crudely managed road over rocks which clanged against the underside of the vehicle.
For the first time in hours, I felt true relief as I roared up the edge of one hillside and over the crest. I looked back just once at the colorful patterns of chaos spreading over the base. According to the jeep's tank, I had enough gas for at least ten miles. That would be perfect. I flicked on my locator. The terrain was rough. I clipped a large sage and maneuvered around a joshua tree.
Still, I knew the mission was over. My drop team radioed me back to confirm. I gave them my pick-up location as I checked my GPS. I didn't turn around. I feared that sisters had wised to me and were right on my tail. I doubted it but it was healthy to fear it.
I kicked up a large cloud of dust behind me and had to slow once I cleared the hills and got into the next valley, which had plenty of junipers and chaparrals standing in my way. I worried both that ten miles would be too far and not enough with the trails I was leaving. I had to make sure the team was safe but I didn't want to give the Embracing Sisterhood long enough to piece together the situation.
But there were no other sounds but the roar of the jeep and the crunch of the dust kicked up behind me. I slowed through some heavy scrub oaks and a dry lake bed.
They were the longest ten miles of any mission. I avoided looking over my shoulder until I'd arrived at the location I'd set on my GPS. Then all was quiet. The quiet was oppressive, massive like a slumbering beast. Softly, a background of crickets filled the still air. I could hear the shiftings of small creatures. And, beyond the quiet, I could make out the whipping of helicopter rotors.
I hopped off the jeep and hurried towards the highest spot. I wasn't ready to celebrate. I knew the Embracing Sisterhood had helicopters much like ours as well. I got out my signaling light but didn't flash it until I could make out the black, beetle-like presence of the helicopter. I flashed my code twice.
I waited. It looked like the one I'd dropped from but the darkness gave just enough doubt.
Finally, it flashed back the answer code and began to descend. I barely remembered hooking into the line they dropped. I had only faint memories of pulling myself into the cargo bay as it sealed up behind me. I do remember pats on the back and offers of water. I slept most of the trip.
I surrendered all my equipment back at base and then took a long shower. I'd have some days to write up my final report on the mission, fill in the gaps of what my recordings had missed.
Toweling off, I stared into the mirror. I looked to be in my late twenties. Long hair with a perpetual shine and the color of a dry meadow at sunset. A face which looked shaped by a sculptor's hand but really had been hacked down to trim, narrow lines. Splintered gray eyes highlighted by the calligraphy streak of strange eyebrows. Arms and shoulders which I'd wrapped in lean, diligent layers of muscles. The curve at the chest, just enough to prevent any questions of physical sex. And the lack of curve at the hips, just enough for those questions to be pondered.
Not my body by birth. But I'd made it enough of a refuge.
My report didn't take long. It went around command several times until it settled on the right people. I got my call three days later. I was to take a private meeting with General Trescott. Basically a debrief session.
What made this special was that General Trescott was easily one of the most paranoid among us. Always watching for double agents and sleepers. Never let anyone see him alone.
His office was at the far end of the base with the heaviest reinforcements to the structure. I nodded my head to his personal secretary. He gave me a careful scan with a portable nano-detector. Then he smiled back and nodded before letting me in.
The General's office was decorated with plenty of photographs of the wars and enough phallic symbols to raise eyebrows. He sat tall in his big chair with lines along his face, some of them from age, some clearly scars he'd kept. His hair was sparse and graying and he wore a shaped rectangle of a mustache joining with a goatee. One of the few men on base with facial hair.
He gestured for me to sit and went straight to business.
"I've gone over your report and the data recovered from the recording device. Unfortunate that there isn't more video. We might be able to reproduce and better counter some of the ES technology you describe. Those old men sleepers especially…terrifying. More evidence we need to hit these goddamn bitches harder than ever before." He set his fist on his table with a firm thud.
I dipped my head and noted, "My apologies, General."
He folded his lip and looked back to some documents. "You did good work, Captain Barrett. More missions like this and we might actually win this war."
I cast my eyes down. The General cleared his throat and noted, "Again…great work. But I did find things which might be inconsistencies. I'm sure you can resolve them for me."
I gave a slight smile and reached into my side pocket. The General eyed me but relaxed when I pulled out a red piece of old candy. I held it out and he quickly answered, "No. Shall we begin?"
The General listed a myriad of little things. Stuff which didn't sound right to him. Improbable outcomes. Fist fighting a Durga. The looks which Sisters gave me. And then there was the matter of the control nanites.
"Most important of all, you mention being able to use them but I don't see them in deployment listing as one of your weapons and I don't see anything about the control mechanism. I mean…if we could control the mythic Tsumiko…"
I leaned forward and asked him, "What if you could?"
He clenched his teeth and sighed to himself. "…Let's just get right to it. You're a very successful operative, Captain Barrett….Kallista…too successful sometimes. I'm quite certain you're a double agent for the ES. And I'm going to find out all the details. You see, as soon as you sat down I made sure nanites were pumped into the room. One of my own special batches. And I am going to have the truth from you…one way or another…"
I crossed my legs, looked right at the General, and gave a calm smile as I said, "I know."
His expression went blank immediately as I continued, "….it won't matter. With the help a friend, I brought along a few nanites of my own. They're similar to the ones Tsumiko got, only they can float around in the air."
The General flexed his arm and tried to reach for an alarm off to his side. His muscles twitched, fighting the action until both his arms settled into his lap. He was able to snarl and ask, "Why? What do you want? Who do you work for?!"
I settled back into my chair. I'd envisioned this moment for a while. I told him clearly and decisively, "I am here because of the Lost Ones. The quiet soldiers who have had their minds blurred and destroyed by deleted and rewritten identities. The ones you and Tsumiko have left behind in your bitter…endless war. I'm one of them. One of the luckier ones. I've been on your side and her side so many times. Back and forth and back again. Played a good foot soldier and then a diligent young Shieldmaiden. A grizzled special ops guy and a clever Valkyrie. Been in command of so many terrified young men and been a Durga, feared by all. Written and rewritten over and over until there is nothing left to write. I am empty, a husk. Immune. I live for those who cannot cry out against this conflict and I comfort them." I raised the piece of candy once again and thought about the dolly I'd given to Reena, which had brought comfort to others before.
I stared into the General's angry gaze and continued, "We want an end to this. And a haven for those that seek peace, away from the horrors both sides have unleashed and what you might bring into the world in the future. You and Tsumiko are going to work together to help us forge a better tomorrow. And neither of you will even know you're doing it."
So many furious words seemed ready to burst from his mouth. But his muscles relaxed and he calmly said, "You're probably right. There's nothing good to come from further conflict and peaceful resolution means less of our resources are expended." His hands still flinched like he could just cast away the notion. He looked at me. I knew what he wanted to say but instead, he told me, "I have nothing else to discuss. You are dismissed."
I saluted and he returned an automatic salute. On the way out, I passed the small nanite release device I'd hidden on my person to the General's secretary. We nodded our heads but said nothing.
I walked through the hallway. Soon, there would be odd failures of experiments and dangerous projects in R&D on this side. Data hacking and the loss of encryption keys would follow. At the same time, the leaders of both sides would discover that maybe their differences weren't so great.
It would take effort and many more odd little instances, but eventually, there would be peace and justice. I would make sure of it. For the Lost Ones and for all who came after me.