Spider knew that she was in deep shit when the tall woman accompanying KTE-11971-Green Ember walked straight up to her and tried to buy her a drink.
It was supposed to just be a girls' night out. PHYSICS Division was about to carry out a readiness exercise, that would last at least a month. Tonight was the last chance to get some R&R before three months of grueling training. Spider had suggested the night out to Kitten and Fox, both as a means to blow off some steam and as a chance to get to know her taciturn coworkers.
If only Kitten hadn't gotten caught back at base doing some emergency preparations for the training exercise.
If only Fox hadn't had to deal with a last-minute emergency with one of her Team members.
If only Spider hadn't seen a goddamn Known Threat Entity doing shots in a bar like a college kid on spring break…
… following them had probably been a mistake, but the bulletins were clear: 11971-Green Ember was a Response Level Three target. Any agent catching sight of her "in the wild" was to maintain contact until STRIKE assets could be brought into play for capture and questioning (or elimination).
The problem was that Spider was a technician, not a spy. Her tradecraft sucked, and she knew it. There was, after all, only so much a two-week seminar could do. Identifying the overwatch team and diverting them with a Lotus Dream? That she could do. Keeping a watch on four women inside a crowded bar? Apparently not something she was particularly good at…
She'd had a feeling shit was going down when the group in the corner glanced over at her and started talking very seriously. When the tall, leggy brunette with the come-hither smile walked over, Spider knew she was screwed.
"Hey," the enemy said, grinning seductively. "Can I buy you a drink?"
"No, that's fine," Spider said, keeping her face half-turned away from the mahogany-haired woman. "I'm waiting for a friend."
"I can be your friend." The enemy slid into the barstool next to her and gave her a sultry, smouldering look. "I could be your very best friend in the world, hon."
"That's okay," Spider said. "I'm really not interested…"
The other three members of the party (including the KTE) got up from their booth and left the bar.
Spider flinched. Big mistake.
"Right," the enemy said curtly. She put a hand into her jacket pocket. "Now we've got a choice. Either we can quietly head out the back door to have a little chat, or I can cause some noise and we can disturb the nice people trying to have a quiet evening. Your choice."
"I'll go quietly," Spider said softly.
"Back door. Now."
Spider got up from the barstool and walked out the door, carefully keeping her hands away from her sides. The alleyway behind the pub was quiet and dark. Not a soul in sight. Plenty of dark places away from the street lights.
Not a bad place for an execution.
The tiny bell in her pocket jingled once.
Spider breathed a sigh of relief which immediately turned into a gasp of surprise as the stranger grabbed her and dragged her into the alley. "All right," the enemy growled, twisting Spider's collar as she pushed her up against the brick wall. "Who the hell are you and why are you following us?"
The silence that followed was interrupted by the click of an automatic pistol being taken off safety.
"I think that a better question might be, 'Who the hell are you and what the fuck do you think you're doing to our friend?'" Fox sneered.
Thank God, Spider thought. Backup's finally arrived.
Aw, shit, Adams thought. I should have known she'd have backup.
Her drink-addled mind was working overtime. Was this a coordinated hit? A chance meeting? Pure fluke of luck? Mugging gone wrong? "It's all right," Adams said, coolly sliding a hand towards the cell phone in her back pocket. "You can have my wallet and pho—"
Someone kicked her knees out from under her and pinned her face-down on the concrete. Adams tasted blood, dirt, and concrete dust. She struggled, but a pair of strong hands pinned her arms behind her back, putting her expertly into a joint-wrenching wrist lock that promised dire consequences for continued resistance.
"Frisk her, Kitten," a low voice growled. "Spider, what the hell's going on?"
"Three women just walked out of the pub," the Asian woman said. "The blonde is the one on the bulletin that just went around last week about the Foundation reactivating their special assault force…"
Oh shit, Adams thought.
"Shit. Katie Eleven Nine Seven One?" the low voice growled. The muzzle of the pistol pressed tightly into the back of Adams' head as another pair of hands frisked her roughly. "Where is it now?"
"Probably out front. Dark red sedan. Three others, including the Katie. They had perimeter support, but I've had them chasing Lotus Dreams for the past half hour."
"… all right," the rough voice said. "If we wait for STRIKE, they're gonna spook. We'll do the snatch-and-grab ourselves. Kitten takes one guard, I'll take the other. You go for the target."
"What about this one?" a third voice asked. This one was toneless and emotionless. A 'grey' sort of voice.
"I'd rather not kill her if I can help it. Hand me your taser," the rough voice said.
Something behind Adams' eyes went click.
She knew that it was suicide to move. Not with a gun pressed up against the back of her head and her arm pinned behind her back. But if what the enemy was saying was true: if the MTF backup was distracted and they were going to go after Iris, Blaire, and Chelsea…
If she moved fast enough, moved strong enough, maybe she could throw her attacker off and get clear of the muzzle of the gun before the other person fired. Not much of a chance. But it was the only chance she had.
She was tensing up to move when there was a bright flash of blue light and the sound of a simulated shutter snapping.
There was a flash of light and an electronic-sounding "click."
Spider turned. There was a darkened silhouette standing the alleyway. Female. Blonde. She had a smart phone in her hand, and she'd just taken a snapshot of the scene and …
A single line from the bulletin regarding KTE-11971: "Subject has limited reality alteration abilities, and can reach through a photograph to move and manipulate objects pictured…"
"Oh crap," Spider whispered.
She went for the only weapon she had left: the ritual knife in her right boot. There was a loud shout behind her. She saw, out of the corner of her eye, a ghostly hand reach out of nowhere and struggle briefly with Fox for the pistol…
The woman on the ground moved, terrifyingly fast. She twisted her body around, somehow causing Fox to lose her grip. The heel of her hand clipped Fox's jaw, hard, sending her reeling into Kitten. Kitten shoved the stunned Fox away, ruthlessly clearing her sight line, raised the taser…
A shot rang out.
Kitten sprawled to the ground, clutching her side. A flattened bullet clattered to the floor. She gasped for breath, obviously winded by the bullet's impact.
The blonde stood a few feet away. Her trembling, bleeding hands held Fox's pistol. She quickly lowered it so it was pointing at Spider's head.
"FREEZE, MOTHERFUCKERS!" she shouted.
"FREEZE, MOTHERFUCKERS!" Iris screamed. Her heart was pounding. Her hands were bloodied. She wanted to throw up, but Beatrix had always told her that a loud, confident shout would do more than bullets to get an enemy to think twice about attacking.
The kneeling Asian woman froze. She was holding a knife in one hand: a curved hunting knife with a hilt that looked like bone or ivory. What was it that Lombardi always said about a guy with a knife? Was it twenty or thirty feet that they can get you in? Or was that while the gun is holstered?
The enemy looked into Iris's eyes. They stared at each other for a long moment.
The Asian woman put her knife on the ground and held her hands above her head. The only sounds were Adams' labored breathing, the groaning red-headed woman struggling to get to her feet, and the gasping of the tall woman with the freckles and light-brown hair.
Headlights. The sound of squealing tires. Iris saw a red-brown sedan drive up the curb and into the alleyway. "GET IN!" Chelsea shouted, as Blaire opened the passenger side door.
Adams got to her feet and ran for it, racing towards the back door, diving past Iris and (if the sounds were any indication) tumbling head-first into the car's back seat. Iris backed slowly away from the three strangers, keeping the gun trained on each of them in turn.
She climbed into the front passenger's seat and slammed the door shut.
"Shit!" Spider growled, as the KTE climbed into the car and started to drive away. She hesitated. Kitten and Fox were both down. If she pursued…
"GO!" Kitten gasped, clutching her side. "I'll watch Fox! Don't let them get away!"
Right! Spider scooped up her secespita and ran after the dark red sedan. She pulled the smart phone from her pocket and pulled up her grimoire. There might not be very much contagion between the skin cells on her jacket collar and the well-dressed brunette who had left them there, but if she worked quickly and kept the car in sight, she could still use the connection to…
She slammed into a tall, Chinese woman in a black coat with short black hair.
Spider let out a surprised squawk that turned into a cry of dismay as her smart phone fell out of her hand and clattered down a storm drain. "Shit!" She grabbed for the phone, but it was too far down to reach. She could see it there, right beyond her fingertips, LCD screen still glowing…
She looked up. Too late. The car was gone.
Spider searched angrily for the woman who had bumped into her, but that woman was nowhere to be seen. "Chow soola," she cursed.
"Holy shit!" Blaire gasped, as the car sped away. "You guys okay?"
"I'm fine, I'm fine," Adams protested, pushing Blaire's hands away. "Just a bit banged up. Iris?"
Iris took a deep, ragged breath and dropped the pistol into her lap. Adams was oddly pleased to see that the safety catch was on. Good girl, she thought.
"Who were those guys?" Chelsea asked. "Church? Insurgency?"
They called her a Katie, Adams realized. KTE. "Coalition," she said softly.
"Fuck." Chelsea's eyes were big, wide, and very, very scared.
"Iris?" Blaire said. "I need you to do me a favor."
"What?" Iris asked.
"I need you to take that gun, strip it down, and toss all the pieces out the window," Blaire said.
Good idea, Adams thought. "Global Occult Coalition puts tracking chips in all their weapons."
"Shit." Iris popped the retaining pin from the pistol and stripped the slide, leaving blood behind on the steel.
Adams frowned. She grabbed Iris's hand and held it up to the light. "You're bleeding."
"I'm fine," Iris said, gulping. "It's just… remember, when I said that reaching through that phone was like pushing through wet sand? I scraped my hand up doing it…"
"GOC sorcerers can track you by your blood," Adams said, taking the pistol. "We need to clean this. Blaire?"
"I got it," Blaire said. She pulled a lace-edged handkerchief from her purse and began carefully wiping down the weapon.
"How the hell did they find us in the first place?" Chelsea wondered. "Is there a mole? Were we breached?"
Just bad luck, if what those three were saying is true, Adams thought. Fucking shame. I liked those bars… She fumbled for her phone, realized that it had been taken from her by their attackers. Damn. Command is going to tear me a new asshole for this…
"Iris?" Blaire asked. "Are you okay, hon?"
Iris didn't respond. She was wrapping her brand-new scarf around her scraped knuckles to avoid getting blood all over her clothes and Chelsea's car.
"Hey," Adams said, putting her hand on the girl's shoulder. "You did good back there. Thanks."
Iris nodded. "Sure," she whispered.
The car continued down the freeway. "What do we do now?" Chelsea asked.
"We can't go back to the safehouse," Blaire said sternly, "and they know your car. Sorry, hon, but you're going to have to ditch it."
"Aww, shit. And I just finished paying for it, too…"
They left the car sitting by the side of the road in the bad part of town. Blaire disassembled the gun and tossed the pieces into the river while Adams hopped the fence into an all-night parking lot. A few minutes and some fiddling with some wires later, the four women piled into a white minivan and drove off into the night.
The minivan's previous owner had left some blankets in it. Iris wrapped herself in one and rested her head against the foggy window as the minivan drove through the desert towards Site-17. She drifted in and out of sleep, listening to the soothing sound of the minivan's engine and Blaire and Adams' whispered conversation.
"What about the stuff you bought at the mall?" Blaire asked softly.
"'I'll have someone pick up our stuff from the safe house later," Adams explained. "For now, let's get back on-Site. I've got some reports to make."
"O5's not going to like this," Blaire pointed out. "They're going to say you recklessly endangered an important asset."
"O5 will be right," Adams admitted. "But they're going to like even less that the Gocks know we've reactivated Omega-7. The one who was shadowing us talked about how we'd reactivated our 'special assault force.' Someone spilled the beans about Alpha-Niner."
"… well, shit. That's all we need."
They continued along the road in silence.
"… all in all, this was still a better night than 'Molotov II.'"
"You're never going to let me live that down, are you… ?"
Iris drifted to sleep with the dark desert speeding past the window and Adams's chuckling in her ears.
They drove the van through the gate and parked it in the underground parking lot. Security would handle the disposal of the vehicle. They were good at that.
The Site was silent at this hour. Most of the doctors and staff were asleep. Only the night shift security was up and about. They passed through the gates and the identity scanners and into the steel-walled elevator, which rapidly descended into the earth and opened up on a sterile white hallway with thin colored lines painted on the walls.
"… I'm hungry," Blaire said. "Anyone want to eat?"
"I could eat," Adams admitted.
"Yeah," Chelsea agreed.
Iris nodded mutely.
They headed into the site cafeteria: darkened and still at this late hour. Blaire rummaged through the refrigerators, managing to find some bread and sandwich fixings. Chelsea cleared off a table, and Adams poured some drinks from the soda fountain in the corner.
Iris sat down at the table. She stared at her bloodied hands for a long time.
Then, as Blaire set the turkey-and-swiss cheese sandwich down in front of her, Iris finally began to cry.
Warm, soft arms wrapped around her shoulders, hugging her close. "It's all right," Blaire's gentle voice said. "You did good, girl."
It was another four hours before the interviews and debriefings ended. She was interrogated about everything that happened from the moment that she and Adams had left the Site. Reliving the day was twice as exhausting as living it had been.
The site was switching to Day Shift when the security guard closed the door of her containment cell behind her. Iris collapsed onto her bed, not even bothering to take off her clothes.
She rolled over onto her back and stared up at what she knew was the distant ceiling of the overly-tall cell. She'd done well, she knew. Taken decisive action, using the camera of her phone to disarm the enemy from a distance. Her actions had probably saved Adams' life, and almost certainly given her the opportunity to escape.
Then why do I feel so sick?
Maybe it was just the hangover.
Or maybe it was because seeing that gun at Adam's head reminded her of the other time that she'd seen a gun pressed against the head of a friend…
"I can't do it any more," Iris had whimpered. "You read Dantensen's report. My powers are gone."
"I know that Dantensen would have said anything to get you girls released," Adrian had said. "But I also know that you can't run forever. They'll find you, Iris. And the next person they send won't be as kind-hearted as I am."
"I don't care! I'd rather die than go back to that place!"
"… I know," Adrian had said sympathetically. "But would you let me die?"
Adrian had tossed a photo onto the ground, drawn his pistol and put it to his head. "I'm going to count to three," he had said. "And then I'm going to pull the trigger. There's a photograph of the internal mechanisms of my pistol there. You know what to do. One."
The pistol's hammer had landed with a loud click.
And Iris had fallen to her knees, the photograph in one hand and the pistol's firing pin in the other. She had dropped both onto the ground and begun to cry.
Warm, soft arms had wrapped themselves around her from behind. "It's all right," Beatrix had whispered. "You did good, girl."
Iris rolled over on her cot. She wouldn't get to sleep for many hours. And for the first time in many years, she would not be awake in time for breakfast.
"So that's how it went," Clef said. "Pity you ladies didn't get to have your slumber party."
"Fuck off, Sir." Adams was still nursing a bruised shoulder and a bloodied nose, not to mention a horrific hangover, twenty hours without sleep, and a wounded ego. She was in no mood for bullshit.
"You don't get to blow me off. Not this time, Adams," Clef said sternly. "For fuck's sake: you went out drinking with a Skip. What the hell were you thinking?"
"I had two backups, and a Mobile Task Force on perimeter watch."
"Not that it did you any good. That Gock sorceress had them tripping balls for hours. Best guess is that she got them just before heading into that third bar…"
"Nottingham's," Adams said.
"… probably used the two previous stops to scope out your backup so she could take them out. If she'd been in a less merciful mood, we could have had an entire dead Mobile Task Force on our hands, did you think about that?
"Furthermore," he said. "Half the Overseer Council wants to see Alpha-Niner crash and burn, and you gave them ammo to use against us before the thing had even gotten off the ground!" Clef's lip curled into a sneer. "So, was it worth it to play 'Sex and the City' with SCP-105?"
Adams' jaw worked as she gritted her teeth angrily. Her hands clenched the arms of her chair so tight it creaked. "Sir? Can I speak freely?"
"That has never been a problem with you," Clef said, deadpan. "But yes, go ahead."
"Last night, Iris tore up her hands saving my life," Adams said. "And then she shot a woman saving my life again. And she did that when all she needed to do to escape was just walk away. The reason she did that is because she and I are friends. Because we bonded over stupid things like shopping for clothes and going out for drinks. Not because an Overseer strong-armed her into rejoining a Mobile Task Force that she never wanted to be a part of in the first place."
"You're saying that last night was a step forward?" Clef said incredulously.
"I'm saying that the two most important things in any army are trust and teamwork. Without those, you don't have soldiers, you have conscripts or fanatics. A conscript will fight to stay alive. A fanatic will die for a cause. A soldier will kill to save the person standing next to them."
The clock ticked away the seconds. Clef shook his head. "That's how you want me to justify this to the Overseers?" he asked. "As a team-building exercise gone wrong?"
Adams steepled her fingers. "Sir, if it weren't for the fact that the Coalition somehow knew that we were planning to activate Alpha-Niner, last night would have been written off as harmless shenanigans. Was Brazil any different?"
Clef's smile took on a distinctly predatory air. "The difference between this and Brazil," he said, "Is that I had the full support of the Overseer Council, and I was the 'teacher's pet' of one of them. Who do you have, Adams?"
"Just you, sir," Adams said.
Clef's stare was cold. "Get out."
Clef buried his face in his hands and let out a long, slow sigh. "I should never have let you bring me in on this."
"Having second thoughts?" a woman's voice said from nowhere in particular.
"Realizing just how deep a pile of shit you got me into," Clef said.
One of the ceiling tiles slid back, lowering a projector into place. The image of a middle-aged woman in a chartreuse bathrobe appeared on the wall of Clef's office. She was sipping a cup of cocoa. "I remind you, Doctor, that it was your idea to bring Adams in on this operation," O5-7 said. "If your protégé is performing below standards, you have no one to blame but yourself."
"It's not that she's performing below standards. It's that she's performing in all the wrong fucking ways!" Clef complained.
Seven smirked. "A sentiment I expressed to you after that nonsense with the giant steel fist. Do you remember what you said to me then?"
"'If you didn't want me to do things my way, you shouldn't have told me to do it in the first place,'" Clef quoted. "Damn you, ma'am. You're enjoying this."
"Damned right I'm enjoying this," Seven said. "Seeing you put up with a willful but talented subordinate is satisfying on a deeply personal level."
Clef leaned back in his chair and grunted noncommittally. "Is that all, ma'am?"
"No," Seven said. "It is not." She leaned back in her chair in a gesture that mirrored Clef's own. "It occurs to me that the significant factor in last night's escapades was that the force that attacked you was also disorganized and uninformed. We can't count on that being the case in the future. With the GOC confirming that we're reactivating Alpha-Niner, they're going to upgrade their readiness. Next time, it's not going to be a few lightly armed off-duty agents."
"If Alpha-Niner were at full force, I think we could take on a STRIKE team," Clef said. "But that's not going to be for a few weeks at soonest…"
"… whereas the Coalition can move to full readiness within forty-eight hours," Seven concluded, "leaving about a month-long gap where we're vulnerable — unless we take some drastic measures."
"You want me to go to Phase 2?"
"I am ordering you to go to Phase 2. Before the Council vote."
"It's too early," Clef protested. "We still haven't confirmed the new memory structures are holding. If she…"
"Do it, Clef. Seven out."
The projector retracted into the ceiling, and the tile fitted back into place.
Clef took a moment to curse his luck. He pulled his hat over his balding pate and grabbed his jacket. He stormed out of his office, past the pimply-faced office drone that Human Resources had assigned to him and Adams as their administrative assistant. "Peon!" Clef shouted. "Clear my schedule for the rest of the afternoon, and tell anyone who calls asking for me to fuck off!"
"… yes, sir," the kid whimpered. "W-… what should I tell them you're doing?"
Clef's smile turned positively gleeful. "Tell them I'm seeing a dog about a suit," he said.
Nottingham's Pub and Restaurant
… and as the GOC operative sprawled on the ground, desperately reaching for her fallen smart phone, Alison Chao turned up the collar of her coat and walked away, stepping smoothly into the Ways with practiced ease. Things were moving faster than expected. Maybe, she thought, it was time to let certain folks know the truth about some recent developments…