Kids with Guns Part Three
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Part Three

Nathan jumped out the back of the Transall 700C.

He was high enough that he could see the curvature of the planet. Far below him and to the southeast, out to sea, a storm was brewing off Cape Sainte-Marie. Charcoal clouds flickered with lightning as they spun clockwise.

He wore a pressurized suit and a respirator with an oxygen bottle. As a precaution, prior to the jump he'd manually flushed the nitrogen from his system.

He plummeted from sixty thousand feet. This high up the atmosphere was thin, the air cold, gnawing at him through the suit. He'd departed from Tahiti and so had no warm clothes, and the crew aboard the Transall had forgotten to bring him any. His fingers and toes went numb. He clenched them into fists to try and get the blood flowing.

Nathan kept his back straight and arms folded tightly against his body as he dove toward Madagascar. He reached terminal velocity within fifteen seconds, free falling at over a hundred and twenty five miles per hour. He wanted to get back to the ground as soon as possible — back where it was warm — in order to avoid frostbite.

He fell…

At seventeen thousand feet he broke through the cloud cover. A great expanse of land spread out below him — plains of rust checkerboarded by vermilion. He could make out the dirty smudges of human settlements along the coastline, and pale ribbons scored the island back and forth. They were either roadways or dry riverbeds.

The lack of vegetation was glaring and the flat, empty terrain made it difficult for Nathan to orient himself. He knew the ground was rapidly approaching, but he couldn't tell how close he was in approximation to it. It was like skydiving over snow or water: utterly blank and featureless. There was nothing to frame his perspective; the towns were too far away to effectively use as a gauge.

He relied on the altimeter in his HUD instead. When it reached eighteen hundred feet Nathan pulled the handle to the closing pin, releasing the pilot chute. An ATPS deployed from his back. His descent slowed as the parachute bloomed and created drag. The harness dug into Nathan deep enough to leave bruises while he wrestled for control with the toggles, using the steering lines to try and straighten out.

When he'd finally gotten himself level with the ground he was already crashing into it. He landed on the balls of his feet and threw himself sideways to displace the impact energy, distributing it along his left thigh and buttocks. Although he had shock absorbents newly implanted in his ankles, it was habit to spread the landing-shock over a greater area to reduce the risk of injury.

"My ride coming in from the west?" Nathan asked as he picked himself off the ground. A trail of dust in that direction had caught his eye during the descent. He unbuckled the harness container and shrugged out of the shoulder straps.

Yes, confirmed the Director, speaking through the phone in Nathan's head.

He removed the respirator's face mask. By the time he was stepping out of the pressurized suit a Jeep Wrangler was pulling alongside him. Behind the wheel looked to be a girl of twelve or thirteen. She had on camouflaged shorts and Adidas trainers patched with duct tape. Nathan was about to comment on her age then thought better of it. He tossed the parachute gear in the backseat and hauled himself into the Jeep by the roll bars.

A hot wind scoured the island, spawning dust devils and thawing Nathan's fingers. He flexed them experimentally. Movement was fine and sensation was returning.

They rode in silence. Nathan took the opportunity to bask in the sun and soak in his surroundings, though there really wasn't much to soak in — sand dunes met the horizon in a complete three hundred and sixty degree panoramic. The only sign of life during the short ride was a baobab tree. But as they drove past it he saw that the tree was in fact dead, the trunk rotten and hollow.

Twenty minutes later and the girl dropped him off at a lake surrounded by hurricane fencing topped with razor-wire. The lake was gone, evaporated, leeched by irrigation systems. A gatehouse stood unattended, and large portions of the fence were missing.

Nathan glanced at a posted sign. Next to the block letters was a radioactive trefoil:

WARNING!

NO ADMITTANCE BEYOND THIS POINT!

GUARDS NOT REQUIRED TO ANNOUNCE THEIR PRESENCE BEFORE OPENING FIRE

The message repeated in French and various Malagasy dialects. Beneath the bold font was something about the federal government and nuclear isotopes. He dismissed the sign as a paper tiger.

Treading past the gatehouse and fence, the lakeshore sloped down, and Nathan spotted a windowless concrete bunker by the banks. As he drew closer he saw that its industrial door was guarded by a digital lock and half a dozen laser-guided turrets. The guns chirped like birds at Nathan's approach, pivoting on gyroscopes and training their barrels on him.

He paused on an apron of poured cement in front of the bunker. Suddenly the steel door rolled up. A ramp led downward, and Nathan followed its course until it opened into a cavernous room. It was cool and dark inside.

He'd never been to this particular installation before, hadn't even known the Director had a place in Madagascar until he'd phoned him. All previous face-to-face interactions had been conducted in the Yukon, at a base carved into the layers of permafrost.

Elevator, advised the Director. To your right.

Nathan walked along a grated catwalk that clung to the wall, his footfalls echoing in the vast chamber. The bottom of the room — if there even was one — was lost in shadow far below.

He entered the waiting elevator. The door snicked shut behind him and his stomach rose as he felt himself catapulted downward, burrowing into the earth.

The door opened and deposited him in front of the Director.

"Nathan," the Director said. Or did he? His lips moved, but Nathan wondered if he was still hearing his voice inside his head. It was difficult to tell.

"Sir," he said.

"How're you feeling? Shoulder isn't bothering you anymore, is it?"

"It's fine."

"Good. I'm glad to hear that. Come on, this way."

He was escorted through a lobby with black tiled flooring, nonplussed by the Director's presence. Nathan hadn't expected him to personally greet him, and he had to quicken his pace to catch up with the Director's long strides.

They walked together. Various offshoots branched left and right from the main corridor, leading to conference rooms and offices. All empty save for cups of coffee and water bottles, like everyone had just picked up and left moments ago. In one conference room a screen still displayed the middle of a PowerPoint presentation, stuck on a slide about transhumanism.

"Hey. What's going on here? Where is everyone?"

The Director looked away. "We have been… liquidating all non-essential personnel."

The words hung between them. Nathan shuddered, recalling the staff at the Yukon site.

"What's considered non-essential?" he asked.

"Non-combat and high ranking, for the most part," replied the Director. "You'd be stunned at how many members of upper management are redundant. Or maybe you wouldn't. Personally, I find those at the bottom of the corporate ladder to be largely indispensable."

The Director moved through a pair of automatic glass doors and came to stand in a wide, circular room. It looked like a dead-end to Nathan; there were no other doorways, not that he could see, except back the way they'd come.

"Stand here a moment, if you'd please." The Director indicated a square on the floor the size of a folded newspaper. "I would override the security commands — I know it's really you, and that you're wearing a nine millimeter in a pancake holster — but it's quicker and easier to just allow it to cycle through its protocols."

The glass doors turned opaque. There was a fuzzy hum like an old cathode-ray television starting up. Nathan had the sensation of simultaneously being watched and probed — of eyes and hands on him, peering into his mind, groping and plugging their fingers into every nook and crevice. His gag reflex ratcheted to high-alert.

The Director, for his part, smiled. He was dressed smartly in a slate three-piece and polished shoes that reflected the recessed lighting. (Probably made out of an exotic animal's hide, the more endangered the better. Great white shark or black rhino, perhaps.) He was clean-shaven and had a full head of silver hair. He might've been a spry eighty, but Nathan wouldn't have been surprised to learn he was pushing ninety.

"You don't like it, do you?"

"You mean somebody does?" It felt as if Nathan was being molested by a ghost. A current of air from an unknown source ruffled his clothes and hair.

The Director shrugged. "You get used to it," he said. "We tried to make it as noninvasive as possible."

"Is it anomalous?" The hum crescendoed.

"The security protocols? No. It's all current technology. Expensive current technology, but current nonetheless. Would you believe you just had a PET scan?"

"Yes," Nathan said, adjusting his collar. "It's not the craziest thing I've heard today."

Like liquidating most of your staff, he thought but kept to himself.

"No, I suppose not," conceded the Director.

The humming ceased. A panel on a nearby wall slid aside, revealing an aperture beyond. The Director motioned Nathan through, trailing behind him. They moved through the aperture — what appeared to be a blast door but reminded Nathan of a sphincter, the way it opened and closed — and entered a new area of the facility.

"Where're we going?" Nathan said.

"We're bushwhacking off the grid." The Director's heels clacked against the tiles as he took point. "I forget that you haven't been here before. This is the high-security annex. I've changed your credentials to match my own, and taken the liberty of downloading the facility's map to your phone."

The wing seemed to be devoted to bio-research. Beyond a row of windows Nathan glimpsed a sterile laboratory. Next was a refrigerated stem-cell bank and — after that — a server farm.

They passed through another sphincter-door on the left, the aperture dilating to permit entry. Nathan followed the Director and froze just inside the room. It was some kind of infirmary, but an infirmary like he'd never seen before. It looked like a surgical suite crossbred with a mechanic's garage. An array of instruments were scattered across tables and countertops: sonic tissue and bone cutters, laser scalpels, drills and chisels and a hundred other tools he couldn't name. There was a spill on the floor that probably wasn't grease or oil. A lithium-ion battery the size of a twin mattress squatted in the corner, alligator clamps attached to the terminals.

Two months had passed since the incident in Massachusetts, and Nathan had spent the first of those months in the amniotic clutches of a drip-feed. But his complacency was disrupted by growing unease. He'd felt like a feral animal, treed by narcotics that wouldn't allow him to escape the hospital bed; they isolated and held him hostage. When he was awake he was listless — couldn't think straight, and the worst part of it was that he didn't care, not really. The drugs had somehow robbed Nathan of concern; of all his instinctive tendencies toward self-reliance and preservation. It stole his drive. The days passed, gently and as inconsequential as leaves falling, and the most he could manage to resist it was to pull out the IV. This served only to set off an alarm and draw the NP on duty at the nurse's station. They would reinsert the infusion while Nathan protested half-heartedly. Who did he think he was fooling? Not them, that's for sure. They knew he was content as long as they kept feeding him whatever the hell it was they were pumping into his veins.

Eventually the nurses grew weary of reattaching the perfusion, and so they simply tied his hands to the hospital bed, and that was the end of that.

Nathan couldn't recall much else from his time in the hospital except for the disturbing image of his torso filleted on a surgical table, observed from an angle as if he was having an out-of-body experience. He would've dismissed it as a dream spun by his addled brain if the image wasn't so damn persistent.

After that came the rehab. He'd called it quits just one week into physical therapy with the random and impromptu decision to fly to Tahiti. The Director had surprised him by leaving him alone. He'd paid the rent on Nathan's bungalow, had sent him a stipend along with prescriptions and a treatment plan, but other than that remained unobtrusive and hands-off.

Until now.

"Are you all right, Nathan?"

Supported by pylons, the bungalow had roosted ten feet above the beach, and the blue Pacific waves lapped and hissed and foamed at the base of the poles during high-tide.

"Nathan? You're drifting."

Nathan snapped back. He didn't want to; it would be easy to close his eyes and disappear into the memory. Get lost in there, like the hospital bed and its intravenous nectar. He could dine on lotuses all day, set Blonde on Blonde to repeat, and dream about anything except this new reality that he'd been thrust into:

A woman was strung up on the far wall of the infirmary.

She was crucified by bindings at her throat, wrist and waist, holding her upright and in place. All of her joints looked to be dislocated. Her legs were missing from the knees down, the left arm cuffed within an Ilizarov apparatus. Tubes ran from frosted tanks into her spine.

The flesh had been excoriated from her body, exposing a metal skeleton beneath and a white mop-head of intestinal wiring that spilled out of her abdomen. The metal gleamed like chrome.

"Bitch has a goddamn bomb tuned to her neural oscillations," the Director said as he advanced on the woman. Nathan didn't think he'd ever heard him swear before, and for the second time that day he was nonplussed. The Director crouched in front of the woman's splayed body, hands braced on his knees and leaning forward. His nose almost brushed her pubis. "You were lucky. If she'd spent another ten minutes in your car we could've used you for chum fishing. We had to freeze her with liquid nitrogen on the medevac to prevent it from detonating. I still haven't figured out how to defuse it. That's why it's so cold in here."

"What is she?" Nathan inched forward, curiosity getting the better of him.

The Director glanced at him over his shoulder, flashing a smile sharp enough to cut glass. "You don't recognize her?"

Of course he did. He didn't ask who she was, he asked what she was. The last time he'd seen her had been over two months ago. She was covered in blood, and he'd been in a rush to save his own skin, but there was no mistaking that face. The phone in his head had a recording of that night, captured by the camera attached to Nathan's optic nerve. He'd reviewed it so many times that he knew the exact time, down to the second, when the Foundation agent appeared. He pulled it up now and paused the frame, comparing the image to that of the one in front of him.

"Should I?" he said.

"She's the Foundation agent you captured."

He'd had a lot of time during his rehabilitation to scrutinize the events of that night in Millbrook, and most of it didn't make sense. The Director would've maintained constant surveillance on the area after the positive Sothian hit on the satellite, so why had he acted like he was unaware of the Foundation's presence up until Nathan arrived at the scene? And — for that matter — why delay that arrival by more than half a day? Under closer examination, the Director's explanation seemed more and more like a magician's misdirection, especially after he didn't hesitate to send in a helicopter to retrieve the Foundation agent.

There were other holes that persisted; whenever Nathan presumed to have a firm grip on things they buoyed and expanded, leaving him gasping and struggling to stay afloat. His assignment was to capture the alleged Sothian cultists, yet he'd been given an arsenal to take on a military unit, not subdue a covenant of witches. No non-lethals, no handcuffs, no charms or wards or talismans. Nathan wanted to interrogate Herbert McKeown, but he hadn't seen him since they'd boarded the maglev train together. He didn't even know if the old man was still alive.

"She's a cyborg."

"Android, actually," the Director corrected. "You're a cyborg."

This is why you sent me to Massachusetts, Nathan thought. He'd never outwardly expressed his doubts regarding Millbrook. An alert popped on his HUD whenever the Director dialed into his head, but he was suspicious that the Director had a backdoor allowing him to circumvent the notification, and was potentially spying on Nathan around the clock.

"So what's the big deal?" he said, leaning against the wall. "This technology has been available for years."

The Director shook his head. "Not like her. There's nothing like her. The technology is still only theoretical. She has a positronic brain utilizing artificial DNA computing. From what I've been able to find out she can exceed five yottabytes of storage capacity."

The agent's scalp was peeled back, the top of the skull removed, as in an autopsy.

"Looks like a normal brain to me," remarked Nathan. It was true — at least, for the small part visible.

"But it's not," continued the Director. "Do you have any idea how big a single yottabyte is? No? It's a thousand zettabytes, or a thousand trillion gigabytes. It's impossible to compress that much data into a human cranium. It'd probably take me a drive the size of school bus to fit half of it. This android's memory density just isn't possible — not yet, anyway — and it somehow sustains equal flops without melting. I wouldn't believe the Foundation had that kind of computing power if I hadn't seen it for myself — no one does, not even the Pentagon or the FSR."

"You don't know how they did it? Christ. You've had two months. Haven't you been reverse-engineering her?"

"There's a bomb wired to her brain activity," the Director reiterated. "It's severely impeded our diagnostics."

"Can't you just — I don't know — hack into her?"

"She runs on a closed network to prevent that sort of thing. But even if I manually plugged into her I wouldn't risk it. She's a supernova of power, her operating platform is unique, and there's no way to know what kind of defenses it has. I don't want to go up against her immune system and accidentally start a fusion reaction."

"Immune system? Wait. Are you telling me she's still alive?"

"If that's what you want to call it, yes."

Nathan felt something that he wasn't used to. What was it? Panic? Fear? He wasn't familiar enough with the emotion to accurately identify it. Anxiety?

"You… you vivisected her?"

"She doesn't experience pain the same way you do, Nathan. It's just an analogy of pain. I didn't torture her. Besides, the explosive device necessitated her continued survival. She didn't really give me much of a choice, now did she?"

Constant exposure to violence had caused Nathan to develop a mental callous against death. As far as he was concerned there was nothing mystical about it, no final judgement or waiting paradise, and certainly no 'New Game +' encore. The world had existed for four and half billion years prior to his creation. He had a hunch that it would continue on fine without him. Death was just another waste byproduct, dying not much different than taking a shit or blowing your nose. And what was left over, after all was said and done, got flushed down the toilet same with everything else.

But that didn't make him a sadist, and he was hard-pressed to imagine a fate worse than the Foundation agent's.

He crossed his arms and veiled his disgust with apathy. "You called me in for this?"

"No, but you should know that thirty six seconds ago the Foundation destroyed our missile silos, taking out our air deterrents."

"What?" Nathan pushed off the wall and stood rigid, his body tensed as he sussed out the news. "You didn't remove her tracker."

"We removed three. After that the scans came back negative. Even if she was still broadcasting, this facility is too far underground and too well-insulated for a signal to reach the surface."

"Why don't you go up and explain that to them, then?"

The Director didn't take the bait. "They must've forced the Transall to land in Ivato and trailed it back here. I'd hoped your HALO jump would've fooled them longer than this."

"You're retreating," Nathan said. It was the only reasonable conclusion, as hard as it was to believe.

"Yes," admitted the Director. "They're coming for her — want their precious brain back, and they won't stop until they have it. I've been withdrawing as they seize my properties, one after the other. First the Yukon, then Crater Lake. The Amazon and Yalong Bay. All gone. And now Madagascar. They've breached the bunker and are making their way to the elevator shaft."

"How many are there?"

There was a discouraging pause. "It looks like an entire MTF."

"Say again."

"It's the whole task force."

"What do you mean 'whole task force'?"

"Eta-8. Call sign 'Man-Eaters'."

"Uh-huh. And how large a unit are they?" The name didn't ring a bell, but Nathan made a point of avoiding the Foundation whenever possible. The last time he'd engaged them there'd been nine agents and he'd barely limped away with his life.

"Forty-five."

And with that, the Director vanished.

Kids with Guns Part Two

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