((From => Electown Dealings))
It was almost laughable, in a way, how much the pieces of the picture formed the archetype for an evil villain's secret base. It was so ridiculous that, naturally, in the modern world, no-one would ever seriously contemplate the thought, except as a joke. It was the sort of thing you might expect to be owned by one of the dastardly figures out of yesteryear's legends. Rogan adjusted the settings on his monocular with two fingers. Around him the sounds of Yumland's tropical, untamed jungle continued with their natural mid-morning energy, but Rogan was more focused on the edifice that peeked out of a risen stone ridge, some twenty kilometres away, at the end of the long valley.
It was one of three facilities, in fact, dotted in near proximity to each other, on plots of land purchased under a conservation research grant by one 'Carrey May Preservation Foundation', itself owned and founded by Caoránach Creative. They studied the climate factors of the surrounding jungle, took wildlife records and counts, measured rainfall, tracked the shifts in natural resources and occasionally released scientific studies on one native animal or another to the greater scientific community. They were generally innocuous; they had a missions statement, but they didn't make waves. The three facilities were isolated, and the only official way in or out of any of them was by air. The one he had been studying for the past three days was built into the mountainous ridge, and had all the hallmarks of a comic-book villain's secret lair. Lance certainly had a taste for the overly dramatic, despite his otherwise clinical ruthlessness in directing his corporation.
He watched for a few more minutes from his perch, making several more mental notes, before eventually climbing back down to the jungle floor and taking a long drink from his canteen. Electronically isolated, far out enough in the untamed jungle to be unreachable by any probing signals, physically isolated to the point that travel by air was the only real way in – on the grounds of minimal impact on nature, the trio of facilities had made it virtually impossible for anyone to see what they were up to without being detected in turn. Satellite pulls had only been so useful, as the bases didn't have much in the way of open spaces or courtyards, but Rogan had managed to track down the remnants of a couple of long reclaimed supply lines – the tracks that might have been once used when the structures were being built, and not everything could be air-lifted in easily. You'd never see them now from the ground, of course, and even from a high vantage point, the jungle was quick to recover such trails. It had taken a keen eye and a very wide, high shot to pick out the traces and recognise them for what they were. It had made his trek a lot easier, however.
He slipped his other tools away and returned to the small camp he had been using. A low, single sleeper tent, a solar cell battery generator and a pair of collapsible light-weight tables that served for his planning and gear checks. On one corner of the table, Lyntael's PET had been serving a secondary purpose of shielding the camp from any coincidental radio scans or electronic sweeps that the far off facilities might be making over the valley – he had no way of being certain yet, so better to take the precaution. He glanced about as he set his shoulder bag down, and found the small point of bright yellow in the overhanging branch a few feet above the table top where the PET sat. The branch was just about at the edge of the range Lyntael could move from the device, but from it Lyntael claimed she could see out through the jungle canopy, in one direction. Rogan was still a little surprised at the efforts she took, climbing up to the branch each day; it was a severe task for her small holographic size, but she had been determined.
The experience as a whole had been a string of thrilled enthusiasm and excitement from the small program – new sights and sounds and, she claimed, smells. Even the previous night, that had given rise to a thunderous, tropical storm had seen Lyntael staying up late, watching the dark jungle and looking out through the gaps in the trees to the tempestuous thunderhead above. Rogan had been more concerned about ensuring that everything that needed to stay dry had done so, but he couldn't exactly chastise Lyntael, since she couldn't help with that anyway.
As he returned, Lyntael looked down and stood quickly, then, for the umpteenth time, again remembered that she was standing several feet above him and wearing a skirt, and shifted her position hurriedly. She waved, smiling bright, but Rogan resisted the urge to caution her about taking things seriously. Until they moved in there wasn't anything she could really do, and he wouldn't be able to give her any warning about the nature of their internal systems until they made contact. She gave all the signs of being nervous and worried about the prospect whenever it was brought up, but seemed to have decided not to think about it while she had nothing that she could do. It was a surprisingly sensible approach, all things considered.
“Lyntael, were there any sweeps?” She shook her head, and settled back down into a sitting position again.
“No, sir. Still nothing. If I had to guess, I'd say they're so focused on their own security that they don't seem to do anything at all, out beyond the immediate exclusion zone of the bases. He nodded in turn and began to pack up the camp, folding everything away into its most compact and easy-travelling form one piece at a time. Lyntael noticed what he was doing immediately. She bit her lip.
“Are we changing position again, sir, or...?” Rogan answered the hanging question with a small nod in her direction as he worked.
“It's time, Lyntael. I've learned as much as I can, and it would be unwise to delay any longer. I can make it to the compound by an hour after nightfall, and if Varda's information is accurate, only the basic skeleton crew will be present. It seems accurate so far, from what I've been able to observe. I don't know to what extent I will need you yet, Lyntael, but I have no doubt that I'll require your assistance at some point tonight. Be ready.” She nodded, speaking a small, nervous confirmation now that it was upon them, and Rogan finished packing up his camp site. It all fit securely into a slim back pack, which he would need to leave outside before going in; he had carefully cleaned each piece of equipment of prints as he'd packed it away, just in case it was discovered, or he couldn't get back to recover it. Before long, there was little to no sign that anyone had ever been in the small space between the trees the man in the long coat headed into the jungle, towards his target.
Light in the Storm: Touching Darkness
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Dark had fallen entirely by the time Rogan reached the compound. This far form any major cities, the sky above was a dense scattering of stars, shot through with the great arch of their home galaxy crossing the sky at a low tilt. Rogan glanced up at it only in passing, his mind focused elsewhere while he assessed the steeply climbing cliff face before him. One their first night out here, Lyntael had been awestruck, looking at the sky and the stars through the gaps in the trees. She'd seen pictures, so she said, but had never been away from a dense city far enough to really see it, with her own eyes. The degree of overawed conviction in her voice, as she'd insisted that there was a legitimate difference between the two experiences, had lingered in the back of his mind long enough that he'd taken a moment out of his preparation to appreciate the view with her, that first night.
He refocused himself. The compound itself was built into the rising ridge – not quite steep or tall enough to be called a mountain, but enough to make any kind of foot passage near impossible. Far above, he could see the slowly sweeping floodlights, scanning the outer portions of the area; in many ways making assaults like this at night was easier, if you were dealing with less certain intel. They didn't have exterior patrolling guards, but the flood lights were on – that lined up with his other scouting to suggest that their external surveillance relied on the lights, rather than having any more advanced measures in place. They weren't expecting physical intrusions, after all. With care, he pulled on the climbing frames that fastened around his feet and ankles, and then donned his crag gloves as well, preparing for a long climb.
“You've walked nearly all day, Rogan, and now you're rock climbing?” Lyntael's hushed whisper barely reached his ear, but it carried an equal weight of worry and scolding. “You haven't even stopped for a rest all day. You're going to wear yourself out!” Rogan kept his eyes on the climb ahead of him in the dark; the moon wasn't providing much light, slim as it was, but between it and the stars, he had enough to see by. He knew he could get to one edge of the compound, where the rocky shelf continued a few dozen feet past the edge of the sweeps, from here, and he'd picked out a workable path by eye before the light went.
“I will rest properly when the work is done, Lyntael. I am fine for now. I'm in no danger of exhaustion.” It was true enough. Some part of him was aware of his body's fatigue, but he knew his limits, and how far to push them. His body was tired, and hungry, but it wasn't going to affect his performance – if anything he was at the point where those sensations just made him sharper, which was exactly where he needed to be for this job.
The climb was slow and silent, but by the end of it Rogan arrived at the forgotten edge he'd noted, looking across at the nearest slate-grey wall, some sixty feet away. They hadn't bothered with perimeter fences, except in a couple of places on the far side – the natural defences of the place were more than ample. There were no outbuildings either – just a single slightly protruding edifice built into the top of the ridge itself. Natural stone continued up past the structure as well; they'd wanted to preserve the natural look of the ridge line as much as they could, and he could only imagine how much stone they would have needed to laboriously hollow out to build the structure. A lot could be done with cheap local labour forces though – and fortunately for him, no amount of bonus pay would actually keep every set of lips sealed forever.
Rogan crouched low, setting his extra equipment down in the dark and selecting just what he would need or couldn't afford to lose. With his back to the compound, her pulled out his PET and shielded it in the depths of his coat. A careful probe showed a surprising lack of high grade networks, at least in the exterior of the compound As near as he could tell, the external cameras were tied to the lights themselves, and they simply recorded and swept, feeding by direct hard lines to a single, blocky protrusion of a room, with a single door leading into it... not an entrance by any means, and more of a back door, really, by the look of things. That room was outside the shielding of the complex itself, and was a simple, low tech security camera system.
Inside the walls, however, his probe came back entirely blind – the whole compound was shielded just was well from his near range probes as it had been from any wide area scans earlier. Rogan slipped the device away for now and eyed up the compound again. It was large in the interior, according to Varda's information, but right now, when it was in down time, it only held a skeleton staffing of twenty or so maintenance crew – people to keep the place clean, monitor long term projects and make sure everything ticked over. None of them would have been working there for more than six months, and employee shifts happened at regular intervals to cycle their staff around and prevent all but a few individuals from having a full understanding of any one project. Lance and his personal team, and their personal security, moved from base to base, taking the body of their work with them, but he favoured these three facilities for his most close-kept experiments. Right now, the man's focus was supposedly centred at the compound in the valley on the far side of the ridge, another ten miles distant, but he had been at this one before then, and, so Varda hoped, left some things brewing. Time to move.
Evading the sweeping spotlights was easy enough, and a minute or two later, Rogan crouched low with his back to the wall by the security door. The lock was an electronic key card lock, but the door itself was wooden, with a draught stop attached to the bottom. The lock would be easy enough, but not being seen was the important part here. Rogan retrieved the PET and extended the delicate-looking probe, accessing its settings and sub routines. As he did, he pulled out a small case from his other pocket and flicked it open; inside were a pair of absolute cancellation ear plugs. Once they were in, he lifted the corner of the draught stop and placed the tip of the probe against the widest point of the door crack. It wasn't much space, but it would be enough. He pressed the button and waited, counting to ten in his head, and pressed it again. Next he stood, accessing a different tool from the probe and overrode the lock a few second later.
Inside the small room, Rogan found a single person; female, late thirties, underweight, nicotine stains on her fingertips, red head with several months of brown roots showing – his detail brain picked out and catalogued the information. She was dressed in a generic green-toned security uniform, with the CMPF logo on the shoulder patch, and was slumped forward across a camera console, sleeping soundly, just a few inches from pushing her coffee off the desk. She'd wake by morning with a mild headache and no recollection of drifting off. Rogan stepped around her and moved the coffee mug in from the edge a little, then quickly extracted his ear plugs and put them away. He checked her pulse and her name tag, took a scan copy of her security card, then glanced at the camera screens. They were all external feeds – the entire outer ring of the facility, including the two exposed landing pads for air lifts and other transports; one was empty, one had what looked like a standard model air shuttle on it. Nothing from inside, though he'd been more or less expecting that. A quick look at the controls told him that he wouldn't find any connection to the interior systems here either. There was only one door, leading into the compound proper, with no details on this side. It was enough to make his lips twitch in a small grimace. He hated moving forward blind.
“Lyntael. The door ahead of me only has another simple electronic lock, but I can't tell immediately if this one is connected to the inner compound or not. Once I move through, there is every possibility I'll be under observation from other cameras, or a similar system. I'm going to interface you to the first thing connected to the inner system I find, and I need you to sync up our locations and begin removing my presence from any systems that catch me during that time. Once that's done, we'll move forward.” He spoke in a low murmur, barely above a whisper, and Lyntael responded in his ear.
“Understood, sir.” She still sounded nervous, but there was resolution there as well. Rogan listened at the door, eyes closed until he felt sure there as no-one on the other side, then moved the PET to the door lock and let it run an emulation of the guard's access card. It clicked with a slight hiss and Rogan pulled the handle, stepping through into the unknown.
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The hall beyond was of a clear white 'future' design aesthetic – all smooth polymer surfaces and rounded edges, and a floor that gave off muted echoes of every step. Rogan looked across the area he could see with a quick glance and located the tell-tale opaque bubbles spaced evenly along the ceiling. To his left, a few paces away, a doorway was partially ajar and he ducked into it before anyone had a chance to come into the hallway. Unlikely as it was, he didn't want to take any chances.
The room beyond was small, cramped, and lined with shelves containing transparent plastic crates, each full of paper documents – stacked, rather than filed. He configured the PET to scan for anything it could hook into before his curiosity got the better of him. There wouldn't be any important project files in a place like this, especially not physical copies, he was sure, but what then? As his terminal searched and Lyntael waited, he crouched and shifted one crate out slightly from the lowest shelf, lifting the lid with a gloved finger. Inside were... Rogan blinked and raised his eyebrows, then shook his head. Applications, resumes, letters of volunteer, all for the CMPF. Someone ought to tell these people that they weren't hiring... not that it would make a difference, considering the strange importance welfare agencies were still placing on mandatory cold-dropping quotas even to this day. He shoved the box back. Ridiculous. In his other hand, his device flashed a light and Rogan stood, glancing at it.
“Lyntael, I have an anchor I can use. I'm inserting you now. There may be automated programs, but I wouldn't expect anything active to get in your way. You'll need to find their security systems first and foremost, remove my entrance, and then begin a cover cycle.”
“Yes, sir. I'm ready.” He pushed the button and modulated the emulation carefully to make its contact with the inner network as whisper light as he could. A few moments later Lyntael's voice came to his ear again. “I'm here, sir. Emulation mask is in place and stable, extenuation is minimal. Sir... Rogan this place is huge. It's so complex. I got a glimpse as I got my bearings, but there's so much here, and so tightly packed in. It's like a giant ball of string.” There was a sense of awe in her words, and nerves underneath that, but Rogan nodded to himself. He had guessed as much would be likely.
“Make sense of it, Lyntael. Avoid any automated systems you find and do not be seen, but make sense of it, and go.” He waited by the door, on hand on the handle; he couldn't make a move until the cameras were dealt with, so this part was down to Lyntael now.
“There's so much of it, sir. It could take me ages to find what I need. I'm moving, sir, but I don't know how quickly I can...” She trailed off, and Rogan weighed his options. Time was of the essence here, even if it wasn't as strictly tight or urgent as some of his other jobs.
“I may be able to give you some help with that. Pay attention to as much of what you can sense as you can.” He extended the PET's probe all the way and adjusted several of its settings. There had been a camera bubble just outside this room, above the doorway out to the security station. It was only a couple of metres from him now, and he hadn't seen any other sensitive devices nearby or closer. A two second burst would do. When he activated the probe's scrambler, it was set to a narrow, tight range that would only reach far enough to hit that one camera, and hopefully nothing else. He waited.
“Ah! There! I've got it, sir. Thank you. I'm on my way.” A few more moments passed before she spoke again, slightly breathy. “Okay, I think this line connects to... Right... Here. Okay, just a few more seconds, sir... Okay... okay, good... I've replaced the sections that caught you coming in. Getting back to the live feeds now. Just a little longer.” While he waited, Rogan tapped at the device in a separate display, using Lyntael's internal network location to begin putting together a rough floor plan of the physical compound. It wasn't the cleanest extrapolation, but with a few seconds he could pull together something functional enough to begin finding his way.
Lyntael worked quickly, her heart racing with the nervous tension of her task. Knowing what this organisation was doing behind its hidden curtains had shaken her, certainly, but in another way, she no longer felt conflicted about helping Rogan act against them, even if it was for some other shady group instead. The data space she'd found herself in was a densely packed interlock of light lines and data corridors, humming with a steady activity that blossomed through her awareness any time she reached out to sense it deliberately. She'd never been in a network this complex, or... messy. Maybe not messy – she was sure the people running and using it knew where everything was and how to find it – but it didn't conform to any external reason at all, as far as she could tell. It was making getting around a challenge. For now, she'd found the command node she needed to access most of the internal compound's recording devices – or at least, she thought she had most of them here. The node itself was formed to look like a circular, domed space, filled with two-dimensional interface screens that drifted about of their own accord. You had to know what you were calling, to get one to come to you, otherwise it was an effort of searching individual ones by hand.
As her hands worked and her hair sparked, her eyes flicked away from the screen she was focused on every few moments, scanning for other signs of movement. Nothing yet, at least. She stood back from the screen and let it drift away from her, then looked about the network space again, letting her senses travel out past the individual sleek command node she was in, to trace along the lines of the impossible bundle of interlaced systems. Where was he going to need her next? They needed to know where the staff were. How would she check that? Her mind raced through her options.
“Rogan, it's done for now. You can move through the halls, at least, without anything tracking you. I've set it to do a series or rolling replacements, with a slight randomisation on the shifts and cuts, so it should look clean. I haven't done anything but the halls though... Even just that, it's a lot of nodes. I think this place goes really deep into the mountain.” Despite herself, she kept her voice to a whisper. There wasn't any point, not really, but she did it anyway. Rogan responded after a moment.
“Good. Next I want you to locate the personnel. Search for any terminals, devices or integrated systems that are currently in use, and tell me where, and what they are.” It was because he was talking in a low tone, almost a whisper as well, she decided. He only heard her voice in his ear, and there was nothing here to hear her speak, but Rogan still had to be quiet, so she ended up whispering as well.
“I.... I think I can do that. I'm on my way, sir.” She nodded to herself and set her shoulders with along breath, then darted from the command node, back out into the complex data space. As the girl left the node, thin silver lines crept around the outside of the dome in a cross-hash pattern, glowed for a moment, then faded from sight.
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The inner networks were an eclectic collision of different systems all inter-looped with each other, and designed to be used by starkly different types of access programs, as far as Lyntael could tell. Clear passageway were few and rare. Her bare-foot steps gave off quiet harmonic chimes each step as she moved, against a floor that shimmered like an oil slick beneath her. What should have been empty data space on either side, or better yet, properly formed environment for a navigator, was instead clustered with other parts of different system lines, none of which quite collided with each other, but all of which seemed just about to. The track she was following should, she thought, intersect with another system set up ahead and above her – she was sure it would show her process requests from different physical devices linked throughout the compound, and that ought to be a good sign for where employees were working, she thought.
Down and to her left, Lyntael glanced through a gap in the data streams to peek again at the faintly glowing shape, within the centre of the clustered network systems. It was a small platform, floating on its own and seemingly unconnected to anything else. A figure was sitting on the platform with his legs crossed and arms folded, wearing a tailored black business suit, a black tie, and a large, broad-brimmed fedora hat that obscured his face when it was tilted down. He hadn't moved, but Lyntael had glimpsed him several times as she moved. Whatever the program was, he didn't seem to be aware of her, or anything else... except for the individual bolts of data that shot down towards him at irregular, yet frequent intervals. Each time a line of data reached him from some other network, or even from outside of the network, somehow, the figure lifted his head – the first time she'd seen it, she had nearly cried out. Where he should have had eyes, the figure bore a pair of raged, gaping holes in his head, covered in scar tissue at the edges. The bolt of light struck him and he lifted one hand to tip his hat, a crooked, over-wide grin lifting on one side of his mouth to show off too many teeth, and then the light beam shot back again and the figure lowered his head, returning to his original pose. Lyntael had no idea what the program was, and she didn't feel she wanted to, but he was the only other potentially sentient entity she'd seen so far, and she did her best to keep away from stretches of path that would reveal her too clearly.
Soon, she reached the closest point she could find to her goal, and looked up to where a spiralling pathway curved just above her, twisting back on itself as it arced through the cheese-block of other systems. It was hard to put to words how she understood what she could sense from the different systems, but that one, she was sure, was what she needed. The main corridor looked like a helix, with fanned extensions flaring off it like fins. It spiralled in place constantly, and she wasn't exactly sure if it was safe for her to make contact with, but there wasn't much other choice. Programs moved along the helix spiral, spaced wide apart, yet consistent. They looked vaguely like birds, made of flowing light, and they flew down the centre of the helix one after another, turning over and over on themselves as they went. Their wings beat slowly, and each flap lit up the fins on either side of the path, drawing something from them with the upward beat, and sending it back out with the down.
Lyntael took a breath to still her nerves, then ran a few steps and leapt up, drawing a current of wind with her to boost and control her movement. There was a moment of intense static where all sense of place and gravity failed and her senses rebelled, before the flicker ended as she came close to the new pathway instead. She turned in the air, arching her body, and hit the flat of the helix spiral feet first. It lasted only a second; there was no gravity here, or, if there was it wasn't enough to hold her body to it. The girl grabbed at the narrow path and scrabbled briefly to hold on, teeth grit as she fought off a sudden wave of panic. It was only as she moved most of her body inside the spiral itself that she felt a sense of pull, trying to make her fall towards the centre space, rather than out and away. There was nothing to hold onto in there either, so she held on tight to the revolving helix strip, clutching to the path and trying to shift her grip as it twisted around. Okay... She could work with this...
Careful to shift her position along with the twisting of the path, Lyntael watched one of the bird-like programs drift close, then leaned inwards and reached out one hand. As it passed by, she let her fingers brush against it, in between wing beats. The form felt soft, almost downy under her fingers; it seemed unaware of her presence. As she touched it, Lyntael closed her eyes and listened. Sure enough, the program was handling access and interface requests between dozens, if not hundreds of physical terminals and other devices. It passed by and Lyntael swayed for a moment, resettling her grip, then waited for the next. Each one that passed, every handful of seconds, was a fresh wave of information about what was being used, and where, and even if she didn't have a good sense of what any of the 'wheres' really were, she began to put together a picture in her mind. She could do this. No mistakes this time, from either of them.
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Tense minutes passed as they worked together. Lyntael moved quickly through the erratic spaces, switching between different parts of the inner nets where she could to keep up with Rogan's needs. In between, they shared terse, clipped communications back and forth, confirming or questioning each task that was needed. Keeping Rogan out of sight of the different measuring and scanning systems took most of her time, flitting from one node to another, often with long, difficult traversals in between as she crossed sections of each system designed for simpler, more specialised programs.
On the outside, she answered Rogan's quietly murmured updates as he strode through the empty halls, using the tools he had to slip passed locked doors and closed checkpoints. Aside from the small handful of workers that were in specific areas, the facility was almost like it was mothballed, except every system was still ticking away in the background, and the whole compound was ready to spring to life and activity at a moment's notice.
Rogan's progress was measured and methodical, but he moved swiftly. As Lyntael kept track of him, she had to marvel at the way he worked. Without her prompting, his search covered each office and research room that he needed to, without any back-tracking or confusion, and without missing any important turns. More than once, she lost him for a moment, only to find that he had slipped almost seamlessly from walking the halls, into a maintenance corridor or a service crawlspace, deftly avoiding a roving staff member, or some other cluster of arrays that might have slowed him down. She grew out of breath keeping pace with him, calling ahead for each fresh obstacle he approached, while managing his instructions in turn.
The progress paused when Rogan came to a halt before a pressurised glass doorway, double layered and air-locked before a set of spiral stairs leading down other far side; he'd passed it once already in his searching, but had returned now. She heard him tech quietly under his breath as he examined it again. How could she help? With a small nod to herself, Lyntael finished covering Rogan from the standard camera feed where he was waiting and glanced around the node she was in – it was similar to all the others she'd worked through so far, but there were small differences between them – enough to get her bearings. She left the two-dimensional interface screen drift away and darted from the node. Behind her, unseen, the same silver lines scanned across the now empty chamber in a rapid wire-frame, then faded.
Rogan glanced back down the hallway behind him again, the focused back on the problem. It wasn't as though he'd expected it to be easy, after all.
“Lyntael. There's nothing more save whatever is further in, beyond this checkpoint. I've found a number of minor and side project files, but nothing sensitive has been left accessible here. No-one in the compound currently has access for this door. If I jump it, it may be obvious that someone has done so.” His eyes moved across every detail he could make out; on this side, the actual access panel would be straight forward enough, but beyond the first layer of glass, other elements had him feeling more cautious. “I can see some kind of scanning device within the airlock space, and a number of small air vents as well. Find out what this portal is connected to; every system it might alert and every call it will make if activated.”
“Almost there, sir.” Distantly, Rogan recalled chiding Lyntael for sounding out of breath on their earliest outings. It didn't bother him now, and looking back he had to admit that it was... he wasn't quite ready to say uncharitable of him, but certainly there he been nothing to gain from the scolding. He caught himself wondering what her side of the work must be like, but snapped his mind back to focusing on the work ahead of him and began setting up the PET's probe to bypass the door. Whether they could control all the variables or not, he still had to go through. A moment later, Lytnael's voice returned.
“Alright, I've got it, sir. Most of the attached sub-systems will only react if the door is forced or opened improperly. It's... why would anyone...? Sorry, sir. It's rigged to 'give' under any kind of break in attempt – if someone tries to force it open, or, um, hack the electronics to let them in, it opens before any real damage is done. Then it seals up again hard once it reads someone moving through the airlock... then, um... it...” She slowed and hesitated and Rogan nodded to himself, then stopped her.
“Enough, Lyntael, I understand. I'm not concerned about it catching me. Watch, just in case, but that aside, is there anything else?” Carefully, he lined up he probe and finished setting it up, then paused to wait for her answer.
“Um... Yes, I think. One other closed call that reports when the door is properly accessed, and whose credentials it was. I can redirect it, though, so it won't go through.” He detected the faintest hint of extra nerves in her answer. She wasn't sure how quickly she could stop it. Rogan glanced at the door, and then down at his PET.
“Do it. I'm starting now.” He checked Lyntael's network location; as before it was utterly incomprehensible on the simple screen display. He turned back to his immediate concern and got to work.
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Before her, Lyntael did her best not to feel ill at the details she'd uncovered about the inner security workings of the compound. From what she could tell, the complex had a number of these particular door locks, barring the way for all but the highest few tiers of their security clearance tables. Rogan would be doing most of the work here, she knew, but just in case something went wrong, he had adjusted the streams of circling data that connected the main interface to the... traps.
The system that controlled the door itself was sphere of blue-green light, just barely floating above the panels in front of her. To her eyes, it was filled with a variety of spinning shapes – prisms with different levels of complexity, each constructed of light and code; to her other senses, without having adequate words to describe it, even to herself, Lyntael could feel the way they moved, checking in with each other every few seconds for signs of tampering or disruption. She could sense the slender, spiderweb thin tethers that connected each little piece of code to each other one, and the way they all reached in towards a centre point, and out to five other connected systems.
All around, the immediate space had become cool grass underfoot, contrasted against white metallic wall segments that shimmered faintly with an erratic iridescence, and which stood seemingly without purpose between open sections that looked back over the unformed void and the complex mesh of other networks below. The space had corners, even though trying to judge its actual size distorted her senses and drove her to look away. Each corner held another sub-system – different shapes and sizes, and of different composition, but each connected to the main door by slender, nigh imperceptible tethers. It was the two at the back that unsettled her the most. They looked and felt identical – taking on the appearance of warped, spiralling purple canisters in the data space. Each had a readout scrolling across the curves of its outer surface, giving feedback for the status of their physical world parallels. Once the door had resealed after an intrusion attempt, they would vent and fill the air lock. The gas that they contained, from what the readings told her, would debilitate most healthy humans, disfiguring them horribly and causing permanent nerve damage, but had a very low lethality rate when delivered at the preset saturation rate. Intruders would be found later and captured alive, if barely.
As Rogan worked on his bypass, Lyntael watched the system with a wide, intently focused stare, watching for any hint of anything going awry. The minute it took crawled by like an hour and she could feel the tension making knots in her shoulders. She flinched when one of the floating crystals in the central dome lit up and chimed, but it was the right sign. It had accepted his bypass as correct. She barley had time to let out the breath she'd been holding, when the crystal sent a bead of light racing out of the sphere in a different direction. She darted to intercept it, toes barely touching the ground as a burst of wind propelled her across the intervening space.
The light bead shot towards one of the open spaces along the wall. It reached the darkness just before Lyntael and she leapt after it, one hand outstretched to close her fingers around the spec of light as they passed out into the unformed space together. Her senses blurred and shifted, overcome by formless static as she tried to redirect the alert back towards her own PET.
She landed, roughly, with a faint scoured sensation prickling across her skin. Smooth panels beneath her, and silence. Lyntael eyes snapped open and she moved to sit up as quickly as she could, but stopped as she found herself at the edge of the small square platform she'd seen before, in front of the creepy, eyeless figure. She held her breath and tried to back away as she picked herself up, but the figure lifted his head, tipping the brim of his hat up to 'look' at her with his empty, scarred eye sockets. He leaned forward, and the motion seemed to come with difficulty, almost like he ought to have creaked and shuddered. The too-wide, crooked grin shifted as what remained of the program's expression changed and fell into something unreadable. Lyntael couldn't dare herself to react at first, and the other program opened its mouth; a rasping sound was all that came out at first, before it tried again. This time, a voice gravely, broken and dry, ground across the space between them.
“You... You should not... be here. You are... whole still... unbroken... you should not be here. You must... escape... you must... get out... before they find you...” The empty holes in his head widened as he 'looked' at her. “Go... Hurry... Don't let them... catch you!” The rasps grew more urgent, and the figure began to unfold his arms to reach one out towards her. Halfway there, he stopped and pulled back. Lyntael looked about and saw a slim network of silver lines forming across the floor and around the platform in a box. The figure reached up to tip the brim of his hat, and Lyntael felt her senses blur in a rush of movement.
“Lyntael. Report. Now, Lyntael!” Rogan's voice pulled her senses back from the edge of a daze, and she shook her head, blinking as she looked around. She was standing back in the same room as before, not far from where she'd jumped. The sphere of light had shifted now, and resolved into an arch, with a base that she could identify as a local range transit pad, but otherwise everything else seemed the same. She swallowed, trying to gather her wits. Her heart beat heavy in her chest, enough to make her ears pound, but Rogan needed her.
“Ah... It's... It's okay, Rogan, sir, um... Sorry. It's okay. I'm... I'm okay.” She swallowed and tried to work moisture back into her throat. The program had looked horrific, but he'd been trying to warn her. She desperately wanted to tell Rogan about it, but he was in his working mind-set, and he wouldn't listen now. She didn't know if she'd stopped the alert properly or not, but if he had been its destination, then it had to be safe, surely. He wouldn't try to warn her, and report her at the same time. She took a breath and tried to calm herself. Rogan hadn't answered, though he had moved through the released door and looking at the arch ahead of her, Lyntael felt certain that she'd need to follow suit if she wanted to keep up with his progress. She darted through.
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Rogan took the time to regain his calm as he slowly descended the winding spiral stairway. For a moment, Lyntael's connection had faltered. For a second, maybe two, the device hadn't been able to find her again, after he'd opened the door, and a brief spike of something unpleasant had shot through his focus. He'd been worried. He supplied all of the other sensible reasons for the worry: it left him uncertain whether he'd bypassed the door's trap correctly; he didn't know whether she'd been successful in preventing any other alerts; if she were caught or found, that was evidence he couldn't afford to leave behind; if he lost her, Eric would never forgive him... all of the reasons that made perfect sense and were very much sound causes for concern. A treacherous part of him still whispered that he didn't think of any of those reasons until after the feeling had struck him. He set it aside and pushed onward, and downward. When Lyntael had answered, no more than two or three seconds later, she'd sounded... upset. If there was legitimate danger, she'd have warned him, of that he was sure, but something had rattled her all the same.
The stairs ended in a small antechamber with a vending machine, a water cooler, a wall-mounted instant coffee machine, and three brightly plastic ferns. Opposite him, a single door led down a straight hall, with marked labs, meeting rooms, and document storage rooms at regular intervals on either side. This was where the real research happened. The ceiling lights were off, and the only real sources of illumination came from the dim glows of red LED light where each door was sealed with an electronic key card lock.
“Ah... Sir, this is... strange. This is an isolated subnet, but it's been designed for navigators, I think. It's... it's much bigger than everything else above, even though it's not as complex. I think... I think this is one of the places where... where...” Lyntael spoke up in his ear as he glanced around; she had regained most of her composure, but it didn't last long as her thoughts stumbled into more worries.
“Yes, Lyntael. Most likely.” Rogan answered her query without making her put her fears to words. “These labs need to be able to run extremely advanced and complex simulations, and to carry out all of their digital navigator experiments, amongst other things.” He moved forward, scanning the numbers and letters above each of the branching doorways down the hall, as far as he could make out in the dim light. Without any proper intel, he just had to start at the beginning and move quickly. “Lyntael... We should not encounter any of that immediately, if I am correct. Our client is after particular projects which relate to their weapons research, and this is the compound we were directed to. It is likely that right now, their navigator experiments are being conducted elsewhere.” He paused by the fist door and examined the lock. He wasn't entirely sure why he felt the need to reassure her of that, but at the very least she would work better if she was calmer.
“Yes, sir. I hope you're right.” She sounded surprised, and grateful, in the few short words, but no less worried, despite her efforts to hide it.
As she stepped through the arch, Lyntael blinked away the brief overwhelming sensation of light and looked about. She'd arrived in a small room, complete with full walls and a ceiling for once, made to look very much like a modern office space – sort of. It was more an entry way, with a selection of office plants in the corners, a snack machine on one side, and an auto-vendor for NaviCoffee on the other (10
“Ah... Sir, this is... strange...” She began to relay what she was seeing, but as her own worries fought to the fore Rogan stopped her. She let herself pause and close her eyes, listening to his voice, sounding as it always did as though coming from just behind and above her. Sometimes the sensation of having someone sure and confident standing behind her was enough to be a little more brave herself. She caught herself imagining what it might be like, if she could feel his hand on her shoulder as well, while he spoke – she doubted he would ever intentionally be that reassuring, but it was still a nice thought. After a moment, Lyntael realised she hadn't responded, but before she could offer a hurried confirmation, Rogan spoke again. She blinked, lips parted halfway to a response that didn't come. Despite the situation and everything else going on, her heart fluttered and made her chest feel tight for an extra moment. She hadn't been expecting it, but it didn't matter in that moment why he was trying to reassure her... he actually had. She swallowed and nodded, trying to hide the remaining nerves in her voice.
“Yes, sir. I hope you're right.” She hesitated, “thank you...” It came out as a whisper, barely audible under her breath, but if he heard her, Rogan didn't respond. Instead, another second passed before he spoke up on a new topic.
“Alright, what have we got with the locks, Lyntael. They're simple enough on this side, or so it seems. Any more tricks?” She refocused herself and moved to the same door that Rogan was examining in the mirrored physical space.
“Ah, no, sir. Just another alert system, I think. It's digitally secured and I can't do anything about it here, I don't think, but when it opens with proper authority, it logs and notifies. I can block that. That's all I'm seeing.” She examined the large red no-access banner across the door again, but there wasn't anything to interact with – it wasn't directly attached to the individual key scanners. It made sense, she had to suppose. A navigator with no real-world operator wouldn't be able to get out of a place like that, not unless they had enough brute power to break the whole system. She shivered again.
“On my mark then, Lyntael. Let us hope that they were relying on the main lock up above. I'm opening it now.” Rogan's voice preceded a low hum, and the holographic banner turned green and parted. A slim bead of light zipped out from the top of the door frame, back towards the arch, but Lyntael already had a hand up to intercept it this time, and redirected the alert cleanly.
“All clear!” A small surge of satisfaction accompanied her words this time and she could almost feel Rogan's wry half smirk as he responded.
“Good. Shall we?” As Rogan entered the lab, Lyntael moved with him.
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Inside, she discovered a well-appointed laboratory; a mirror in some ways of the lab she assumed Rogan was now exploring, but grander in every way. Testing apparatus lined different parts of the walls, attached to row after row of closed cells, operation tables or currently empty tanks. Blank, dark screens that might show reports or read-outs filled every spare space that wasn't cleared for work of another kind, but despite the rounded, white surfaces, Lyntael's mind jumped back to the cold and the steel of a room that felt altogether too similar in her mind. She shivered and squeezed her eyes shut, swallowed, and took a breath. Not there. Instead, she turned her senses to the rest of the network, as far as she could read it while Rogan began his search. A few seconds later, her eyes snapped open again.
“Sir! Rogan, there are information requests and functions being manually run from a series of different terminals below this level. There are people on the floor below, sir.” The information was a shock and she forgot to whisper it, crying out instead, but Rogan didn't panic. Instead, his voice returned to her, calm and methodical, and the firmness of it helped sooth her worry.
“Understood. It seems our intelligence missed a detail. I will be careful. It looked like the far end of the hall had an elevator, instead of stairs. Will you be able to tell if it is called?” His pitch didn't waver; it was just another factor to consider in business as usual. Rogan wasn't fazed, so she could stay calm as well. She nodded, then answered a moment later.
“Yes, sir. I can monitor it easily enough, I think. I can't tell what is actually happening down there, just see the activity. I can't tell how many people there might be. It's a few, sir, unless it's one person running all over to different terminals and systems really quickly.” She looked towards the door of the lab and moved to wait by the exit, focusing as hard as she could on the unexpected activity below.
Together, they worked through the contents of each lab, office and storage room on the level. The signals below never changed or altered what they were doing, and the elevator down never activated. Rogan moved with practiced efficiency as he sought out the information he needed bit by bit. He didn't have time to really case any of the information on the spot, of course, but as he searched through individual log terminals, or physical storage files and took his copies, he managed to determine that most of what he was collecting where abandoned or concluded research paths. Even, eventually, the code names that Varda had sent him after specifically, when he located the related project files, seemed to have recently been brought to their termination point, or otherwise concluded. None of the threads here seemed to be on-going. It didn't matter too much. He was here to acquire specifically what Varda had requested, and that much he was definitely doing. He was picking up more besides, and anything would be useful moving forward. It would have been ideal to find the threads of what they were currently progressing, but he didn't have the luxury of being choosy right now.
It made a certain amount of sense, if this compound was being rotated out right now – their active work would be in the active complex, and more heavily guarded. Most of it did looked weapons tech related as well, though there was cross-over, as usual. Partway through the third testing lab, the thought that was tickling at the back of his mind led Rogan to speak quietly while he duplicated files.
“Lyntael. When you lost contact before, at the upper security door... you sounded shaken. I assume it was not an immediate threat, or you would have notified me, but if something happened there to make you more nervous, and it might affect me, I need to now the details. Out with it.” He expected the several seconds of silence that followed, and waited them out. Eventually, she spoke.
“It was... there was, ah... It's not a danger, sir, I'm certain that it's not. But... but there was another navigator. He was in the outer net, doing a job, but I'm not sure what... Only, when I tried to redirect the alert from the air lock, I ended up face to face with him.” Rogan fought off the urge to curse and held his silence while he worked and waited for the girl to explain exactly why she felt that wasn't a major threat. When he didn't reprimand her immediately, she continued after a few more seconds.
“He was... not right. He was hurt, ah... dis- um, disfigured, and I could tell it wasn't normal, or good for him. It was just... it wasn't right. Something was off, and wrong. I don't know how to say it. But, when I was there, he said... he said I shouldn't be here, and that I had to escape, before they found me or caught me. He said I was... um. That I was whole and unbroken, and that I had to go, before I was caught. He was... He wasn't... I'm sorry, sir... it's just, he wasn't... okay... but I couldn't do anything, and he sent me back to where I was before I could say anything.” She lapsed into silence again, and Rogan could picture the girl with her head down, awkwardly shuffling and holding herself as she did. He paused between documents to close his eyes and rub at one of his temples briefly. He knew what that was, more or less.
“I understand, Lytnael. Nevertheless, however well intentioned that program may have seemed to you, you cannot trust that others can not take from it unwillingly what it might not volunteer to them. Our need for haste increases.” He finished with the terminal he was searching and cased the rest of the lab for anything he'd missed. Fitzpatrick's navigator experiments broke and destroyed almost everything they worked with, eventually, but from what he'd leaned, at least a small part of that, the left overs, were turned to other functions as part of the experimentation. Whatever that particular program had been doing, it fitted that description. Rogan wondered, not for the first time, how long it might be before their hybridising, augmenting and super-specialisation experiments would being to meet human subjects. Not long, he wagered.
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They worked in tandem, moving from room to room in silence save for the short back and forth instructions and responses. It wasn't until Rogan had reached the last archive on the floor that the sense of timed tension felt too pressing to ignore. Out in the main hall again, he glanced in both directions. To his right, the end chamber held a turn circle for heavy equipment, and the service elevator that descended further into the rock below. He knew it didn't go up, given the floor plan, and the further depths of their research was still a temptation. If he wanted to see what fresh threads they were pursuing, or what projects were still being monitored, then down below, with those active signals, was where he would find it... but... He looked the other way, back up the hall towards the stairs up. He had everything that Varda required of him, plus a little bit extra, and Lyntael's run-in with that other program had him cautious as well. If the space below was many rooms, he might manage, but if it was a single space there would be no way to handle several people without being detected. Too many uncertainties, and too many risks. There was a time to gamble and a time to play safe, and instinct told him not to push his fortune. It scratched at the back of his mind, as though he might already have pushed it too far.
“That's enough for now, Lyntael. It's time to go. Return to the upper air lock, we're getting out of here.”
“Yes, sir. On my way.” The tiny voice in his ear failed to disguise the threads of relief that ran through her words, and Rogan turned back the way he had come. It was true that they were past the most dangerous part, at this stage. Even if he got seen on the way out, they wouldn't be able to actually stop him getting away, short of a fire fight that he didn't think any of the current staff would attempt. At least not the ones above. That there were people below, past the higher security gate, was a flaw in Varda's information, and that in itself was a worry. He hadn't been able to learn more in the time he had taken to prepare, but that didn't make it any less of a concern. A sudden cry of alarm in his ear made Rogan pause and glance back down the hall as he reached the stairs.
“Rogan! There's... there's something happening! In this room! It stopped me! I couldn't get—” As her words cut off into a yelp of pain, Rogan had the PET in his hand, fingers darting to adjust the emulation view point and bring it to Lyntael's exact location. The screen showed a room similar to the one he was in, but around the edges of the walls a silver cage of light glowed across the surfaces in a tight cross-hash. Lyntael stood not far from one side, staggering back from the lines of light and clutching at her face with both hands. Rogan resisted the urge to swear. Instead he began to rectify the link itself to Lyntael's position.
“I'm pulling you out.” He bit off the terse words as the process took multiple too-long seconds. The silver lights intensified, then twisted inwards in a folding motion that encased the panicking program and filled his view with light. Lyntael shrieked in his ear, then the emulation collapsed, leaving just a network view of an empty room. Rogan felt his teeth grit; the signal had been cut entirely. Without being properly connected, his manual extraction had been her only option, and it had not been fast enough. He assessed his options. It hadn't looked like a cleaning program. It had taken her somewhere. Somewhere he could trace, if he was fast. Calculation took over as he spent precious seconds reading the traces of what had happened. There. The sweep had sent its data – sent Lyntael – to a terminal in the lower level.
The cold ration of his working mind ran the scenario. He knew what he had to do. There wasn't any choice, not if he expected to get out again cleanly. The floor below was a completely unknown, and if he was captured, it would likely be death. Leaving was the only sensible course of action now. Rogan looked both ways, up the stairs in front of him, and back towards the far end of the hall, and the way down. He turned, and with long strides began to run towards the elevator.
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The pain locking up her limbs lingered for extra moments before it faded into the sense of movement and speed as whatever it was dragged Lyntael towards an unknown destination. It lasted only for another second before she caught herself staggering forward and stumbling to one knee. Long, green grass; cool air, almost like a mist, or a fog. It felt like morning, but overcast, cloudy. The light was soft. Lyntael looked up, trying to see where she had arrived, and froze. Her heart felt like it had stopped as a cold terror washed out from it and consumed the rest of her thoughts.
It was a green cliff side, falling away down sheer, chalky white cliffs to a crashing sea below. The setting felt strangely familiar, except all she really saw was the figure standing at the highest raised edge of the cliff, looking out across the ocean with his arms folded. He was wearing a black, waist-length coat, with the collar up and the cuffs turned back, black pants and solid boots.
“So, what little run-away have we got to play with to-” The voice paralysed her, and as the figure turned around, Lyntael stared up into the face that had haunted far too many of her nightmares. Vigilance cut off mid taunt, staring back at Lyntael with an open expression of shock. It lasted a full second before the other navi broke into a lop-sided toothy sneer that showed his not-quite-straight teeth on one side. He barked a disbelieving laugh.
“Mercy me... It's really you, isn't it? What deranged, broken stupidity would make you come here?” Still grinning he began to move towards her. Lyntael felt herself falling back into her own nightmares as a part of her tried to scream at her limbs to move. The world felt like it was spinning and as she tried to stand her legs didn't want to hold her. Instead, it became a backward stumbled that she only barely managed to turn into a jerky backward shuffle further down the slope. Vigilance was laughing aloud now.
“Oh, I don't believe this! Little Lyntael... If Lance wasn't such a cold bastard I'd think he'd given me a present!” He walked towards her, arms open; no weapons in his hands yet. She tried again to get to her feet and managed to force herself up. Every part of her was shaking, too much to control, and her skin and hair had begun to spark in violent bursts. Vigilance paused and his laugh drew down into a satisfied smirk.
“Don't worry, darling... I don't need to rough you up this time. You're in my playground tonight, and this time I know you're cut off well and good. No operator to save you this time, Little Lyntael...” He paused, still keeping his distance from the sparking electrical bursts for now. “Got our spy, boss, but it's not the mafia drudge we were expecting. You're not going to believe this...” He seemed to listen to something then grinned again and turned his attention back to her. “You know... you left your mark on me alright, beautiful... I've even got a little side project set up, all personal like, just for you. Never thought I'd get to use it... you're going to love it.” His grin became a dark chuckle before returning to his now resting sneer. “Well... no you won't. But I will.”
She had to do something, anything. Rogan was coming; he would get her out, she knew he would, but she had to do something, something to hold the monster off until he found her. She backed up another shaking step, teeth grit, and swept one arm outward towards the other navi. Current swelled and coursed, drawing in to her core before bursting out through the extended striker in an arc of lightning that thundered across the distance between them. The grass all around wavered and glowed and the bolt seemed to fade. It scattered lightly across a barrier field surrounding Vigilance and Lyntael felt herself suddenly grow dizzy and disoriented. She backed away further, stumbling down the hill and stuck out again, forcing the power through her body ahead of her own building charge and using its ferocity to give her limbs the strength that terror had drained away. Vigilance only followed, sometimes stepping aside swiftly, other times letting the lighting blasts scatter across his defences. Each time she lashed out the network around her responded, draining away the power of her efforts and sending another dizzying wave of weakness back at her.
There had to be something she could do. Some way to get away, or buy more time. The thought of talking, of saying – shouting – anything at all, was there but no words made it through the ocean of mind-numbing emotions. She tried to run. Her steps staggered, trying to shake off the drowsiness as she turned to scramble away from the monster behind her but even as she turned her back on him, a hand clamped down onto her shoulder.
“Come on... let me show you...” The voice crept into her mind like an oily hiss and she felt her consciousness slip away into darkness.
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Halfway down the hallway, Rogan's eyes flicked to the various glowing security lights throughout the level. As one, they dimmed and flickered off. Ahead, the electronic display on the elevator shifted through a series of testing patterns, then shut off as well. He didn't slow. If something was happening, now, then they probably knew he was here already. A few strides later, the background lights came back on, but the elevator remained dormant. There was no more time for caution. The trace on Lyntael's destination was far less incomprehensible on this inner network, and he knew that whatever had captured her had taken her to something down below; he could mark the location, near enough. A stopped lift wasn't going to be enough, not by a long way.
As he reached the running space at the end of the hall, Rogan eyed the panel that was slightly different in the centre of the ceiling and sprang for it without stopping. His hands pushed the near side of it up, twisting to grip the support gantry and he pulled the rest of his body up in a fluid motion that brought his feet to the far end of the panel, kicked it up the rest of the way, and followed through to let him land in a low crouch in the work space above. As he'd hoped, the elevator didn't go up, and the actual shaft started on this level – he was able to scuttle across to the various shaft maintenance controls, find the access hatch and pull it open in a matter of seconds. The lift was up, and a moment later he dropped down inside the dark, powered-down space.
A few seconds later he had located and opened the floor hatch as well, and looked down the empty shaft. Without hesitation, he pulled the climbing frames from his bag, along with the gloves and adjusted them. Compact, flexible tools were the lifeblood of his work, but Rogan's mind was too focused to think on the detail with gratitude. Instead, he attached them to his boots, double checked that their configuration was locked, then swung his feet into the hole. Each foot hit one of the main cables below the elevator and Rogan shifted until they found the right grove, then flexed each foot in turn to clamp it on. As he did, his hands finished securing the cable braces to his gloves – small titanium frames that allowed him to ratchet lock onto most metal cables and pass them through his grip safely. He slid his feet further down the cable, gripped it with one hand, then dropped into the darkness below.
The sliding scrap of metal was the only sound Rogan could really hear as he dropped through the dark shaft. Below, he could see the lights of a single other floor, as well as the shaft's end. One exit only, but several floors down. It would probably be one large space, considering that there hadn't been any additional security locks. Once his decision had been made, Rogan's mind had emptied of everything except the running string of situation, problem, solution and action. He reached the bottom doors and gripped, grinding to a rapid halt on the cable. There was no other side access or maintenance hatches that he could make out here – just the doors, and the usual safety controls for shaft-side overrides. No better way. He wrapped an arm about the cable and fished out the case that contained his ear plugs. He only had the one set on him, and each pair was only truly safe for blocking three uses of his shrieker before they'd risk failing... but without knowing what he was facing beyond the door, it was the surest course. He fitted them, then pulled out his PET to prepare the probe.
He froze, then double checked the display. His trace on Lyntael had disappeared. He couldn't tell if she was in a terminal in the room beyond or not. When had it gone, and where? There was no time. He finished setting up the debilitating sound pulse, then set one foot in the door and wrenched the manual release.
The chamber beyond the door was singular, broad and cavernous. Beyond a certain amount of carved edifice and structural reinforcement in places, the majority of the walls had been left to the natural rock that formed a broad dome overhead, punched through with conduits and ventilation shafts. The floor was smoothed stone in several places, connected with metal gantry that crossed jagged, unworked sections of the cavern floor, but the most obvious feature to take in at the first glance was in the centre. The cavern was longer than it was broad, with the elevator doors opening onto a raised up processing area at one end. The platform looked out and down over a great groove that formed the centre of the cave – a stepped bay of stone and concrete that held exactly the type of device one might expect to find in a story-book villain's lair. This end seemed to be the housing of whatever it was, while the contraption itself continued the length of the grove it was set into. It actually looked more like a massive conduit, than a device itself, at a closer look. The far end of the cavern narrowed down into a reinforced tunnel that led into darkness; the conduit continued into it, but a mass of machinery created a separation of some sort between one end and the other. For now, Rogan didn't have time for a second glance as he thrust the doors open and darted through onto the platform beyond.
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The space beyond the wide elevator doors provided slightly more cover than he'd been afraid of, but only slightly. It was arrayed in tall, long shelves and pallets with narrow aisles between them containing what looked like scientific equipment that Rogan didn't take the time to identify. To either side, ramps and stairs descended towards other work-spaces that ran the length of the cavern, above the central channel. People moved about the other platforms, tending machines or access terminals, but Rogan's eyes picked out the stoic stances of several armed guards amongst the more causally dressed bodies. From the no-doubt metallic grind of the door opening, to the clatter his metal-shod boots would be making on the polished stone, Rogan had no delusion of stealth, but he ran in and skidded low behind the first tall shelves as several bodies turned to look and the armed ones began to move towards the upper platform.
From one knee he pulled the metal frames off his boots and shucked his gloves, collapsing them and stuffing both temporarily into the internal pockets of his coat. How many and how far? In the fractions of seconds he assessed what he'd seen. Too far to get them all safely. How long? He reached out one hand to close fingers around the metal gantry-work that started just ahead of him, where the stone ended. His world was silent, but he felt the vibrations of booted feet on stairs, tramping upwards. Not running, cautious. The vibrations grew light and faded. Rogan moved along the stacked shelf until he reached the edge of one pallet and found a gap he could look through. Nothing at first, then the movement of a figure striding slowly along the other side. The figured stopped; probably calling out, Rogan guessed. With his earplugs in, any warning he might be giving was wasted. He had to bring the other guards in closer first. How fast would the guard be? Not fast enough, he had to wager.
The figure started to move again, couched slightly and holding what Rogan had to presume was a fire arm presented with both hands. They reached the end of the aisle and Rogan counted in his mind, then whipped around the corner. He stayed low and, rather than striking the guard, moved past him then kicked the man's legs back out from underneath him. The guard tried to shout something, and track with him, but Rogan was quicker. His opponent was hastened towards the ground by Rogan's arm across his throat as he kicked the rifle away from them both. He pressed in just long enough to change hands and make a more precise jab with two fingers, holding it until the guard's eyes lost focus and his struggle stopped. He had definitely shouted. Rogan checked his pulse, but as he did a second figure rounded the far end of the aisle. The weapon rose immediately and he retreated back around the end of the shelves. This was too dangerous. He had few other options now. He moved down two stacks, but threw the metal frames from one pocket down the aisle he passed, then paused with his back to the second shelf. The vibrations of running feet. He counted in his mind, then moved. As he darted back around into the aisle he'd skipped, the other guard was already turning around. Rogan came in low then rose, attempting to close in quickly before she could respond. He saw the light flashes of muzzle fire as his body twisted and he struck the woman's arms, diverting the weapon and shoulder-checking her against the shelves in the same movement. He followed up in grim efficiency with three more rapid strikes that put her down hard. The last was a temple blow and Rogan paused again to make sure she was breathing. Good enough.
A few quick, crouching steps took him to the far end of the aisle of shelves and he managed to steal a quick look out over the rest of the chamber, but ducked back again as more flashes of light made the shelves around him spark with ricochets. He took a breath and pulled out his PET again. The four from the back had come closer now, moving up to put themselves between the civilians and himself. Good. Others were rushing the platform now. They were too slow; he pushed the button and the probe blinked red. Out across the cavern space, other figures jerked and stumbled as their bodies locked up briefly, then slumped into unconsciousness. Rogan held the button to a count of five then released it.
When he looked out again, most of the room had gone still. Sleeping bodies sprawled across consoles and a cluster of several armed figures blocked the stairs down in a disorganised jumble. Rogan pulled out his earplugs and put them away. Sound returned; a loud electronic hum filled the cavern space, creating a white noise that might have actually hidden some of his efforts after all. Didn't matter. There was no shouting, and now alarm blaring, or any other signs of an alert or emergency, and that was what mattered for now. Next, find out where Lyntael's signal had gone from here.
As he made his way down the stairs, movement caught his eye. Halfway down the bank of machines on the left wall of the chamber, one of the civilians had not slumped into unconsciousness. He had just looked around from his screen, pulling up the goggles on an all-encompassing headset that he had been watching the screen with, and now looked around at the chamber of sprawled bodies with... less wide-eyed shock than Rogan might have expected. They met eyes and the figure froze, then gingerly pushed his chair away from the terminal. He stood, hands raised, took a few more steps into open clear space and put them behind his head with a hopeful expression. Rogan felt a small, grim smile twitch at his lips as he moved towards the man.
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Lyntael felt her consciousness snap back to waking as she gasped for breath and her heart hammered painfully in her chest. The terror of her last moments of awareness had given way only to traumatic subconscious ephemera, and waking again gave no respite. Her body was already in a state of panic, and her mind caught up in an instant, skipping from one horrific reality to another. She felt cold steel on her back. No. Her eyes were bleary as she tried to look around; clinical blank walls, strange scientific equipment. No, no, no. There were tears obscuring her vision even as she blinked, shaking her head. She couldn't move her arms, or her legs. Anything but this, it was another nightmare, it had to be. Broad metal braces were clamped down over her wrists and her ankles, bolting her to the cold steel table, and above, a bright light bore down on her from the ceiling. She couldn't breath; her lungs hurt, her chest ached. Something moved. Her body convulsed with heaved sobs as Vigilance stepped forward into the light in front of her. She heard her voice mumbling wet, half-formed denials as her head shook back and forth. I wasn't real; it couldn't be real, not again.
“Rise and shine, beautiful...” He stared at her, his eyes raking across her body in hungry silence. He stepped forward again, closer, and a part of her mind realised that the bench she was bound to was more of an angled rack, holding her splayed and spreadeagled like some kind of specimen.
Her charge rose, panic and terror fuelling a swell in energy that filled her, but something was wrong. It didn't just build; it flowed, and flowed, and she couldn't stop it. The energy raced from her chest in a continuous stream as it charged, out to each of her strikers and... Vigilance grinned. He reached out and placed a hand on her midriff, but she couldn't flinch away from it no matter how she tried. His fingers stroked across her skin, devoid of any shocks or sparks.
“Had a little word with the boss about you... That little lightning problem you've got. We found a good solu—” Lyntael couldn't hold back the tight cry as the energy rapidly rose to searing pain. The shout became a scream, and around the room first one, then another of the large devices sparked and exploded, sending showers of sparks skittering about the room. Vigilance ducked with a muffled oath. She couldn't stop it. She clawed at the runaway charge with every bit of effort she had, but the completed circuit drew harder, tearing the electricity out of her faster than her body could generate it, and her body, in turn, charged faster and faster, wilder and harsher. She couldn't slow it down, couldn't stop it. Her eyes burned with overflowing sparks that his contraption didn't siphon away, while the courses down her arms, legs, and up her back felt like they were searing and melting from the unending, ever-growing flow. In the room, a third power relay exploded.
“Bloody hell! Lance—” Lyntael was lost to the charge in that moment, but Vigilance had warped across the room to a different terminal and was making adjustments. “Lance! A little help!?” His voice was a suddenly frustrated snarl.
The conscious awareness of pain returned. Her mind came with it, longing for the emptiness that her overcharge usually created... but it didn't come. The pain remained, wracking her and she writhed against it, helplessly seeking some way to escape the sensation. Every breath still came out as something between a cry and a shriek. After another few moments, a dull, muffled feeling encased the burning of her charge, reducing the flow of it to a persistent ache instead.
“There... That's done it.” The sneering voice was back, but Lyntael's thoughts were too shattered to do much beyond register it. Her charge still flowed, not a pulse, or a beat, but a steady stream that made it hard to breath, or think. Above the ache, now, sharper points of searing white pain identified themselves. As her body struggled and writhed in the restraints, she could feel spikes of agony at her wrists and ankles. A feeling like raw nerves and torn skin. A creeping sensation on her arm revealed thin trails of blood beginning to escape from beneath the metal cuffs and run onto the steel table and floor below. Her eyes, too, hurt badly enough that she could barely squint through them. Blood in her mouth. She'd bitten something. Her tongue. And her lip. The tears running down her cheeks stung even as she tried to fight off the newly prominent sources of pain and catch her breath.
She made out Vigilance standing in front of her; his hand reached out to smack at her cheeks, then, after that test, draw soft fingers down her neck and to the first clasp of her vest. The tugging sensation pulled her back partially off the cold steel for a moment as he gripped and wrenched away, tearing the bindings and flicking the vest open wide as an after thought. The hand settled on her left breast, rubbing and gripping at the small amount of soft flesh there. Lyntael grit her teeth and turned her head away, but there wasn't anywhere else to look. It couldn't be real. It couldn't be happening again. Rogan would come. He was coming. He wouldn't leave her.
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As Rogan approached the remaining technician, the other man gingerly, slowly moved his hands to begin pulling off his other head gear. No doubt whatever he'd been engaged with had had enough sound protection to save him, at the edge of the shriek's range. It might save him time, though.
“The data that comes here from above. Sweeps, captures, quarantines, security. Where is it stored?” He wasn't particularly aware of the cold edge in his voice, but the technician seemed to be. He glanced around, then back to Rogan.
“Right. Um. This is monitoring, and other specific projects. None of that comes down here.” Without really processing the thought, Rogan had closed the distance between them, taking the man by his shirt front, turning him and forcing him down to his knees on the gantry.
“I would not advise lying. A signal came down here, and now it has vanished. Explain.” The other man was entirely malleable, at least in body, and gave up no resistance, but his answer came with calmer tone of voice than his body language suggested.
“You think any of us don't know what we're doing here? You think we're innocent bystanders? This is a place where people who step out of line too far disappear, and no-one misses them, because none of us are good people, really. Whatever threat you feel like making, I got no reason to help.” The body was still relaxed and unresisting of his grip, but Rogan realised now that the expression of worry he'd worn before had not been because of him precisely. He grit his teeth and changed tack.
“Everyone else here is going to be out for hours. If there's any surveillance here, it's already seen me talking to you. I'm going to get what I'm here for, one way or the other, and when it all shakes out, they're not going to know whether you helped me or not... Do you think they'll err in your favour? If you're conscious two minutes from now, you'll have a chance to get away. If you're not, you probably won't. So explain.” A quiet moment passed, and then the technician spoke again.
“Orders were that if any navigator type program was collected, it gets sent straight to Fitzpatrick, so that's what we did. You can't trace it because there's no permanent physical connection through the shielding between each lab; the hard link needs to be engaged on both sides. Six connectors, six authorisation keys, on both ends.” He flicked his head slightly, gesturing towards the conduit structure that took up the channel in the centre of the cavern. Rogan followed his indication, then looked back at the other crumpled forms scattered about the room. The technician shrugged. “If you want to hack in to Site C from here you're fucked, mate. You don't have six pairs of hands to work with. I couldn't help you get it done if I wanted to.” Rogan swallowed the urge to curse. He had no way of waking anyone up early, and he doubted the other man was lying at this stage. Instead, he gripped the man harder, leaning in as he wrapped one arm about his neck and shoulders and pressed two fingertips up under his jaw. For the first time, the technician went stiff with tension.
“If that's a data conduit, then it has to be cared for all along its length. How and where?” One hand gripped at his forearm, trying to ease the grip, while the other rose to point at the conduit itself.
“The... ack... there's a shot car... runs the length of the tunnel. Nothin' fancy. It wouldn't be any use. Fitzpatrick's at Site C now, with all his private lot. You'll just get yourself killed. You're better off getting' yourself a new navi mate, that's just—” Rogan pressed his fingers in harder for a couple of seconds and the man's body went limp in his hands. He lowered him to the gantry and strode to the end of the chamber just shy of a jog, climbing down one flight of stairs, and then a second ladder until he was at the base of the massive pipeline.
Walking around, his eyes picked out a series of heavy machine pylons that seemed designed to lever forward and back, set at intervals around the conduit itself. They were connected to parts inside the apparatus, on one end, and fed back down to operating stations set out along either side of the tunnel's arch. And thought of rigging up a quick connection was discarded as he inspected the set up. If it was mirrored at the other end, there was nothing he could do anyway. On the far side of the massive cable housing, he found what looked like a dangerously rudimentary maintenance trolley. It was more of a cage, really, mounted on a track that was attached to one side of the conduit. Even as he approached, he could see that the only operation panel inside the car was remarkably simple – a switch to power it, an emergency stop button, and one lever marked with three grades of forward, and backward. As long as it was fast, that was all that mattered. He climbed up, unlatched the cage door and stepped in. At the push of a button, it hummed to life and Rogan looked into the black shadows of the tunnel beyond. He turned back, casting his eyes one more time over the now still cavern, then pressed the lever forward and sent the trolley clattering into the darkness.
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Despite the speed of the maintenance trolley, the trip still took several long, interminable-seeming minutes through the onrushing dark. Rogan watched ahead, one hand on the lever, peering into the black as his mind raced through as many different permutations of plans as he could account for. This facility was in full operation. That meant a lot of staff, and a number of on-site guards. Lance had his own personal detachment as well, though while he was working they'd be scattered throughout the compound a little bit and only handful would be directly with him.
The idea that he was risking a direct confrontation with this group's leader, potentially even face to face, was ridiculous. He knew that. There were other considerations. He didn't permit himself the space to think about exactly what those considerations were. Instead, he planned, and watched ahead for the first signs of reaching his destination.
At last a speck of light showed around a gradual curve in the dark tunnel. His eyes picked out the shapes of the massive conduit alongside the trolley's track, and the curve of the tunnel itself; the walls rushing by too fast for clear details. He reached into his coat and retrieved the case containing his ear plugs, plunging the world into absolute silence. Last time he could use the shriek safely, but the room he was arriving at would almost certainly need it. He checked the rest of his equipment by touch in the darkness, then crouched low. With one hand, he gripped the trolley's door tightly then lifted and unfastened the latch. The movement pressure threatened to slam the gate open in the tunnel, but he held it closed and watched the light approaching.
In a similar-looking cavern space to the one that Rogan had departed, the room was bustling with activity. Casual-dressed employees moved between different consoles and other devices on either side of the large chamber, checking data read-outs and talking to one another while armed guards patrolled or stood in place all around the space. Most of them wore uniforms that displayed the badge of their local cover group, but several in the chamber – resting together not too far from the primary freight elevator, bore a different insignia, and the others gave them a wider berth.
“That's the last files archived for the transfer to Site B. Everything cross-checked?” At the end of one string of terminals, a technician cast his eyes over the lists of data and read through the transfer manifest with a nod. A voice came to his headset from the other side of the cavern a few moments later.
“Cross-check confirmed here. Delay for the emergency transfer from Site A has been accounted for and we're ready to lock in and send.”
“Right. Meet you down there in a minute.” The worker pushed out from his work station and stretched. He glanced at the terminal's clock before turning away. Still another hour and a half before he could clock off and turn in. Oh well.
As he started to walk towards the tunnel entrance and the connector switches arrayed to either side, a crash of sound and sudden commotion came from the open archway. He heard two shouts of surprise, and caught a sense of sudden movement, and then gun fire rang out across the cavern. Cries of alarm filled the air as the shot sparked and bounced of stone and metal in the high reaches of the chamber and many of the people in the room instinctively ducked down or cowered. The armed figures were already beginning to move, rushing towards the disturbance. Another short burst of gunfire sounded, and he saw the reflected light of a muzzle flash, but the next shout that followed it cut short, only to be over-ridden by more demands for someone, somewhere, to stop and rise their hands. It sounded like the interloper declined the suggestion as more shots came. Other shouts answered, chastising them for shooting near the conduit.
The technician decided not to continue down towards the connectors right now, and instead rushed back to take cover behind one of the taller terminal towers nearby. He tapped a sequence on his ear piece as he crouched down.
“This is AN413 23C, ah, there's a... a situation down here. We're... we're being attacked, I think!” A bored and tired female voice answered him.
“Do you want me to put out a site alarm, send additional security, or both? I can—” she stopped as a click added another line to his connection.
“Excellent news. Good work. Handle it if you can and try not to get killed; I pay you all quite a lot.” He recognised the new voice from the announcements and other site assemblies and the objection he'd been about to make stalled. It didn't do to speak across the boss... and not just the boss, but the boss-boss. He swallowed.
“Yes, sir, Mr Fitzpatrick... but, sir...” He flinched as another short burst of gun fire made metallic cracks as it ricocheted off nearby gantry.
“Your report's been noted. Well done, that's all.” The line disconnected, leaving the technician to swallow his concerns. Hazards of the work, he knew that. Security would handle it. He took a moment to peek out from his cover to see what was happening, just as a sensation like a tangible wave rolled over him. His chest tightened and he felt his muscles lock up as his body went painfully rigid and his eyes squinted through the not-quite-sound. His vision swam, then fell into dark spots and narrowed down to a black tunnel. Shapes of metal and stone tumbled across the small dot of light as, numbly, he felt his body tumble to one side, before his consciousness slipped away entirely.
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Vigilance hummed, then chuckled to himself as his hand stroked and squeezed. Lyntael felt his gaze rake her prone form as he nodded. No matter how she strained, the current that normally suffused her skin couldn't break away from the completed circuit.
“Much better... Huh... talk about monsters, anyone ever ask you what the hell you are? Should be nice and comfy now though. Let's enjoy this. Show me your eyes...” He pulled her face back towards him, and she didn't have the strength to resist it, but even so, she could barely make out his form, squinting through the stinging sensation. Around the room, bright spheres of glass filled with flaring electricity while the ever-flowing stream of energy stole her breath. Vigilance made an irritated sound. “Damn sparks... Pity. Doesn't matter. I've been waiting for this for a while now, Little Lyntael... I just know you're going to feel amazing.”
“I'll indulge your depravity in this, Vigilance, for a little while... but you watch your slips. I think hearing his little navigator suffer might help convince our friend to be wise in his actions.” A different voice filtered across the room; it was casual and relaxed, with the hint of a northern netopian accent. Vigilance smirked.
“You're going to let him live? I'm surprised...”
“After he learns a lesson. Now mind you say nothing you shouldn't, got it?”
“Right boss. I don't mind an audience. Bloody pervert watched last time, after all, didn't he?” Her tormentor turned his attention back to Lyntael. A knife appeared in one hand and he leaned in closer to her, until she couldn't see anything beyond his grinning face. Out of pain, spite and hopelessness, she slammed herself forward, trying to headbutt him – to do something, or anything, to stave off what was happening. He liked it when she fought back, didn't he? That made him delay last time. Vigilance pulled back away from her before the attempt connected; her motion had been slow and laboured.
“Heh, that's it. Struggle, gorgeous. Show me your spirit... I want to watch it break. How do you like it, hmm? Putting on a little show for your bastard operator, huh? He get his rocks off seeing me have you like this, do you think? Does it make him hard?” His voice was a sneering whisper, cold and indulgent. He stepped in closer, still holding her jaw in one hand, and Lyntael felt the coarseness of his clothing rub against her thighs, then a hard pressure pressing beneath her skirt, against her groin. It seemed like a vile, petty thing, against the agonising pain and fear for her very life, but the girl thrashed violently anyway, trying, in futility, to shift away from the sensation.
“Get... nngahh... away! Don't touch me, you—” her voice broke into a strangled gasp as a fresh line of new, clean pain lanced across her senses; a line on her left calf that made itself known with razor clarity before gradually beginning to fade into the mass of other points that her awareness was struggling to cope with. She could feel her senses drifting as some part of her tried to separate itself from the overwhelming situation. Vigilance pulled the knife out, dragging a whimpered, choked sound from her, then brought it up to glance at with a smile. Blood dripped from the edge of the blade, to make a red stain on her skirt.
“Or what, beautiful? Are you going to stop me? A broken little doll like you? Any other navi would shrug that off, you know that, right? But you... I could let you go now, and you wouldn't even be able to run very far... You're exquisite. Making you suffer is the best use for a toy like you. I can see why he likes to watch... You think he's watching now? Like before, hmm? Just letting me have my way with you...” Through grit teeth, Lyntael screamed again, thrashing at her restraints. Each tug brought a fresh flare of pain like tearing skin and breaking open scars. The constant flow of energy was drowning her thoughts. The cuffs at her wrists and ankles had taken on a dull orange glow, bleeding into shades of blue and purple at the edges.
“He's coming! He... He won't give up... gghhh... and he's... he's better than... than you... or your boss... or anyone.” Her defiance came out breathless and wet with tears, and she could taste blood in her mouth still. She squeezed her eyes closed and tried to reach out with her other senses, feeling the data space around her. It was vast, but she had to try. “Rogan! I'm here! Hurry... Please!!” The words broke into crying pleading, no matter her attempts to shout them, and Vigilance cut her off with a harsh slap. He was still wearing that twisted sneer.
“Not this time, sweet thing... Not this time. This time, it's just you and me, right to the end.” He hesitated, then licked the flat of his knife, running his tongue over his teeth for a moment. He shrugged. “Never did have much in the way of taste. You tell me, beautiful... Hold still now...” He pressed the edge of the blade between her lips, carefully, then withdrew it and made it disappear with a flick. His thumb worked around her lips once, coating them, though it came more from the blood already in her mouth, than from where the blade had cut her leg. “How's it taste, hmm? Tell me...” Lyntael only shook her head; past memories intersected with new horrors, each seeming as real as the other, and she struggled to call out again through ragged breaths. Her voice called for Eric this time as her grip on reality blurred, but above her, Vigilance just chuckled.
“No? Oh well... We've got time yet... There's more I've been looking forward to seeing again, beautiful...” His free hand returned to stroke and squeeze at one of her exposed breasts, more softly than before, while his other released her jaw and trailed down, dragging fingers over her midsection, then gripped beneath the clasp of her skirt. Lyntael tried to shut it out, along with the pain and the strain of her charge. He was coming for her. She just had to endure, until he rescued her. He was coming.
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Rogan took a moment to let himself breathe. Once more, the world of silent light flashes and empty, open-mouthed shouting returned to one of normal sound as he ripped the ear plugs out and stuffed them into one pocket. There was no stealth from here on out. He'd made it far enough into the cavern that he was sure the shriek would cover the whole area, but he wouldn't have that luxury for whatever else waited him up above. Bodies littered the chamber all around him, but they were all still breathing. No deaths today; not this time. He stood from the knee he'd been on and vaulted the nearby barrier, swinging himself up onto a higher level so he could scan the room properly. It was similar, but not quite identical to the other chamber. His eyes found the wide doors of the elevator up, but here there were two smaller lifts as well, one on either side. They'd said that Lance had ordered everything sent to him directly... but it still had to pass by fixed locations first, and if he was lucky it would take a while to get to him. He was sure the CEO of the organisation was a busy man. If he was lucky, it wouldn't go directly to Lance before the morning.
Rogan searched a few of the more casually-dressed bodies for access passes and identification he could use, then brought out his PET to begin searching for some digital signature he could trace properly. Where would they have sent her?
“There you are, right on time! Our little Sharo sneak come to find his lost toys!” The small black device in Rogan's hand lit up with a fresh short-range communication. It had forced its own acceptance and the voice spoke into his ear-piece with a bright, laid-back tone, and a hint of lingering northern-netopian lilt. Rogan grit his teeth but didn't answer right away. He checked the screen, then tapped a few buttons and checked other details of the 'call'. He could cut it off, if he had to, but for now he let it play. It was a short range connection, and it was coming from somewhere close. As he strode towards one of the small elevators, he carefully began to work on the signal.
“Not feeling chatty? Is my Netopian too thick for you? Somehow I don't think that's a problem. It's very interesting that you're here, but it just means you haven't leaned your lesson yet. We're going to have to fix that, aren't we?” Rogan glanced at the screen. It wasn't coming from any of the terminals here, or routing through them either. If Fitzpatrick knew they had his navi, then he might have picked her up already... threads of emotion rippled up underneath the mask as he worked the controls quickly. He pressed them back down. They would only get in the way, and he needed to be calm if he was going to rescue her.
“Aren't you a bit too important to be bothering with all the little rats and mice in the night?”
“Oh I always like to make time for the little unimportant folk. We're all one big family here, and family is important, don't you think? The things we wouldn't do for our family. I do hope you haven't brutally murdered too many of mine for the sake of a silly little program.” There was a pause as Rogan called the elevator, then disregarded it; he'd spotted what looked like an emergency stair, behind another row of shelves, and broke into a run as he made for it instead. The voice continued. “But she is a rather delicate piece of work, isn't she?” Rogan felt his chest lurch sharply but he ignored it and pushed on. That confirmed that Lance had her directly then. He began bolting up the stairs, each long stride taking three at a time as he glanced at the screen every few moments.
“But I'm being a bad host, aren't I? You've come here to get her back, so you're going to need to know where she is, right? Here, let me help you...” There was quiet for a moment, but then a broken sob, cracking into a scream of pain, echoed into Rogan's ear-piece from the call. His step faltered for a moment and he shoulder-checked the wall at the turn of the stairs with a grunt. He didn't let himself stop running, but he brought the PET up again to look; his jaw was tight near to pain as he saw the feed that had pushed onto the screen alongside the call information.
His eye found Lyntael first, slightly off-centre of the image, strapped down, half stripped of her clothes and bleeding. He heard her cry out again, saw her struggle weakly as the other navi on the screen mouthed words to her that he couldn't hear. Rogan flinched as Vigilance stabbed his knife into her leg and drew it out, sending another tormented sound to his ear. Anger and disgust surged but he kept his voice level and his face smooth, just in case.
“What do you want?” He spoke between breaths as he continued up the stairs. Not far now.
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The sounds of Lyntael being... tortured... were hard to block out as Rogan tried to plan his assault on the floor above. He didn't dare cut off any piece of tractable data, but listening to it was hard to bear, even behind the cold calculation of his focus. Lance hadn't answered him yet, letting the sounds of torment continue for long seconds instead. There would be many guards above, most likely.
With any luck, if they'd been summoned to meet him, most would be checking the elevator signal first. It might give him an opportunity. With one hand, he continued trying to trace the signal from the forced 'call'. It had definitely originated up on the main high security floor above, but he hadn't narrowed down where yet. After another moment, Lance's voice spoke back with an equally flat, controlled voice.
“The first lesson, is that I don't want other people, no matter who they are, or what their history in Sharo may or may not be, to mess with my things... or I'll mess with theirs. But of course... You aren't actually one of their things... Are you? They wouldn't be caught dead letting one of theirs be caught dead here. You're just fodder to them.” His words continued, but in the background, the feed to whatever depraved lab Lyntael was held in had continued, and he was forced to listen to the girl cry, whimper and shout. The twisted navigator with her had already half undressed her, leaving the girl indecent and exposed; he was sadistic, and liked to torment his victims, but there was no telling how much time that would buy him. He had to get her out before... Rogan cut the thought off. He couldn't afford to make emotional stipulations like that. He would retrieve her as fast as he was able to, no other qualification. He had to keep Lance talking as well, even if it was just to let him gloat.
“Alright. You kill me, you send them a message. That's fair. What's all this about then? Why bother?” He crested a landing in the stairs and glanced upwards, then bounded up the last few flights to the heavy emergency door, stopping to listen through it as best he could.
“Well that's the second lesson, isn't it? Oh navigators, especially the good ones, they feel and fear and suffer, sure, but it's not really the same as you and me, is it? But still, it doesn't stop us getting attached. This little thing you've got here... sorry... that I've got here. Someone's got to be real attached to that. So, point is, I want you to suffer as well.” Another dragged out breath's worth of wracked crying punctuated his words and Rogan resisted the impulse to look at the screen. “And maybe you'll learn that it's a bad idea to mess with my stuff, too.” The voice chuckled to itself. “Well, I'm fibbing. It's a bit more personal than that, isn't it? A lot more personal, really.” Rogan couldn't delay any longer; couldn't afford to. He narrowed the range of his scrambler and pulsed it, then as the lights flickered, he shoved through the door and into the hall beyond.
Immediately he came face to face with a security guard, but the moment of surprise was a moment too slow for the other man and Rogan moved quickly, pressing him to the wall opposite and forcing his arm away from his weapon. The guard struggled, and Rogan grunted as a fist struck him hard in the midsection, but his fingers found the man's neck a moment later and pressed under his jaw until his eyes lost focus and he slumped. Rogan lowered him down and looked around, listening. Nothing yet. The floor plan was different here; he could see that right away. Quick steps took him to the end of the terminating side hall and he paused to listen, then retrieved his corner mirror to check.
The hall emerged into an open lobby that held one of the smaller elevators. Further along, down the directly opposite hall, he could see another broader lobby that presumably had the main freight lift in it. Two armed guards were focused on the nearby door, and he saw several other dark-clad figures down the hall further, poised at the other doors just in case.
“Sounds like you're busy again. We'll talk more in a minute or two if you're still alive. Don't disappoint me.” The call went dead, and a quick glance at the screen showed him that the feed of Lyntael's situation had gone with it, leaving him in silence again. He fought down the urge to curse. They were here on this floor, somewhere, and he had no time for caution. How many guards with weapons between him and them? He had no way of being sure. The ones on this floor were all dressed like Lance's personal guard, not the site security, so he was probably close. He checked the lobby again and decided against it. They were on high alert, and looked ready to shoot on sight. His eyes scanned upwards to the ceiling panels.
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Lyntael felt the rough tug that jerked her body against her bonds; heard the tear of fabric, and felt the slide of the ruined material being pulled away from her. It really wasn't very much that covered her from the world, a distracted thought contemplated. Barely anything, really. When it was gone, it barely felt different, not amidst the unending strain of her charge that flowed from her. The sensation of being exposed the rest of the way, of air against the skin of her lower body, was too subtle a thing to really notice, in between everything else. She couldn't feel her fingers, or her toes. Her limbs were going numb from the burden of the completed circuit. The rapid pound of her heart in her chest was a different source of pain; a dull, fast-beating ache. Individual pains won through the background feeling that her body was trying to block out now. The stinging in her eyes would have driven her to tears, if her cheeks weren't already run with them. Closing them didn't help, and she forced herself to keep them open; to focus on whatever she could. Dimly, some part for her was aware of her conscious thoughts separating and drifting apart as her mind buckled and rebelled from the situation.
“A fucking work of art... that's what you are...” A voice breathed close to her; the figure of Vigilance had his head tilted to one side, his eyes raking across every inch of her exposed body and taking it in. Her limbs were numb, save for spikes of intermittent agony whenever she shifted and something at her extremities tugged. Vigilance reached out and ran one finger over her emblem, circling it, and Lyntael felt herself shudder, revolted. The hand moved, sliding across to grip and massage at her breast again, still sickeningly gentle. She couldn't breath; every effort just came to small, tight pants that made her chest flutter without really providing relief from the suffocating feeling. Another shudder passed through her and she struggled again, trying to shift the sensitive skin away from his hand, but it only sent more spikes of sudden pain through her wrists and ankles. A sear, like something tearing beneath the metal restraints, and the sound of something wet, sizzling on metal. An iron scent reached her nose, but it only joined with the taste already filling her mouth. She wasn't here; that was how it always was in the end, wasn't it? She wasn't actually here. It was just another nightmare. Another bad memory. This wasn't now and wasn't real.
A sharp shock slammer her vision to one side, then pulled it back again and she squinted up at the other navi's sneer. Her whole body trembled and shook, in between more pronounced sobs.
“Don't you go anywhere, beautiful. Stay with me now... we're just getting to the good bit.” The hand holding her jaw gripped tighter and pulled her head down so she could see the rest of her body, and Vigilance above her. His other hand left her chest and dragged fingertips down, whisper light, across her middle and then further. Lyntael felt fingers tug at soft hair, then press lower; felt foreign invaders explore slowly, pulling and sliding, parting skin and letting go again. She struggled, thrashing despite the spikes of tearing pain at her extremities. The pain in her eyes blazed harder and the hum in the room grew louder in the background.
“Get away! St- op it, Stop! You can't!” The words she tried to form came out stuttered and wet, cried out between breathless sobs even she she fought to pull herself away from his hand. She couldn't do anything. Even if she tried to burn herself out, embrace that terminus for a moment, and buy time – it was no use; the cuffs just ate it up and she couldn't even reach that point of personal oblivion. Vigilance laughed and nodded, his tongue sliding out to run across his teeth as he watched her thrash. He wasn't going to stop... and even when he had taken everything else, he'd kill her in the end as well. She had to hold on. Hold out, until Rogan found her. She had to make it through. Vigilance looked back down at her as his exploring hand played.
“Who even does this, huh my little doll? Who puts so much work into someone... gives you so much... thinks of every little detail like this... and then just... sends you here, to a place like this, hmm? I ain't going to question it... but that's twisted. Still...” Suddenly he leaned close, and she could feel his body close against her as he brought his face right up to hers, only a few inches away. “I'm going to make the most of this.” His fingers gripped her jaw tight, holding her head still, and then she felt him press against her lips, his tongue briefly exploring between them, against teeth that he wasn't giving the chance to close. She felt her face contorting in reaction to the sensation, an ill, queasiness rising in her, but Vigilance pulled back a moment later, blood on his lips and a smirk as he licked them clean. She heard herself mumble something, or try to, but it didn't make it into proper words. The navi above her watched, then ran his tongue over his teeth again and spat into his hand. A moment later she felt his fingers again, down between her legs. No, no he couldn't. She had to stall him. Rogan would save her. She reached out again, trying to force her charge to build higher, straining to find the place where she might lose herself to its fury, but nothing came. The light flares around the room grew brighter, and the softer glow from her cuffs faded from orange towards yellow, at the edge of her vision, but the oblivion of burning out wasn't there. Rogan was coming, he had to be.
She felt it, a moment later; Vigilance leaned in above her, then grabbed at her throat with one hand. He moved his body up against hers. A sense of contact, pressure and pain, and a lurch as her whole body was thrust upwards along with the sudden force. Vigilance lifted his head back, hissing a breath.
“Fucking exquisite...” The pain wasn't really much pain, not compared to everything else. He moved again, and her body shook, shoved up against her bonds in response. She felt sick. Revulsion overpowered everything else as bile rose in her throat. She felt sick; on the verge of retching. The horror, the fervent denial, even the fear, was balanced by the disgust that flowed up through her from the violating sensation. It didn't even hurt that much, in the end. Everything else hurt more. Another spasm of pain from her extremities as Vigilance shoved her body with his movement and pulled at her wrists and ankles. Where was Rogan? She knew he wouldn't leave her. She knew he wouldn't. She hadn't managed to stall long enough. She'd been too scared. She hadn't fought hard enough. She'd felt too helpless to do anything. Too weak to keep herself safe. Now...? She felt sick. Rogan was still looking for her. He had to find her soon.
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The crawl space in the ceiling was low and narrow, but nothing that Rogan wasn't used to. He moved quickly, but more importantly, quietly from brace to brace, keeping his weight even and shifting smoothly. He paused as, below, he heard the muffled sound of a radio crackle and a voice speaking. It was too muffled to make out, but it didn't sound hurried or urgent. He held still a moment longer, but there was no rapid or sudden movement. Carefully, he pulled out his PET and searched again for anything that would give him a definite answer. Lance's call had come from somewhere on this floor... but with it cut off, he had no lead for where.
His mind reached back for what little he could be sure of, of the floor plan, then peered across the narrow maintenance space he was moving through. There weren't hallways and corridors here, but while he could see the limits of some of the simpler storage rooms, the bigger obstructions were the heavily reinforced and protected walls that he had to guess made up the actual research labs. Each was probably a closed box, of a sort, without an easy back door. How long did he have, before that navi got bored of lesser torments? He shoved the thought from his mind ruthlessly and refocused. Thinking like that would just distract him and slow him down.
He moved further across the floor, away from the elevator shafts, and found a grate that looked down into a document room. It was empty of people, but Rogan knew that aside from Lance's personal contingent, there would be more active site security here than in the previous facility. They knew he was here, but he still had to stay hidden; getting caught would be the end... but he needed more information all the same. He couldn't just go lab to lab and guess. Where would Lance be?
Below him, the door slid open with a hiss and three shapes moved into the room, the lead one pushing a small trolley holding several boxes. Quiet murmurs of conversation drifted up. He didn't know how viable the opportunity really was, but there wasn't any time to second guess. Rogan shifted his weight and lifted the grate in silence. The trio moved around the trolley once they'd stopped it at one shelf and began to unpack the boxes with tired motions. Rogan lowered himself through the gap in the ceiling with practiced surety and dropped to the carpet. One of the white-coated figures began to turn his head just before Rogan hit them, but it was far too late to react.
A handful of seconds later, two of the unfortunate technicians were slumped over the trolley and on the carpet respectively, while Rogan held the third pressed tight against the back shelf of the room, pinning his limbs with an arm and one leg while he held his free hand over the other man's mouth.
“I'm not interested in you. You're an innocent victim who saw nothing, as long as you tell me what I need. You get one chance. Where is Fitzpatrick holed up, right now. Try anything else and it goes badly for you. Understood?” Against the shelving, the other man struggled to nod. With most of his body pressed up against the scientist, Rogan could feel the panicked beat of his heart in his chest. He'd have to trust it. He removed his hand.
“D-14. Mr Fitzpatrick requisitioned lab D-14 when he came. I don't have access, I swear, I don't!” Rogan covered his mouth again and looked into his eyes, measuring. After a moment he nodded, then pressed in hard enough to make the man's eyes roll and lose focus. He lowered him to the floor. Next step. His eyes scanned the trio and took in details. As far as quick-changes went it would be rough, but he didn't have a better option; he got to work.
A little under fifteen seconds later, Rogan made his way down the open corridor and took a right turn. He pushed the document trolley, leaning heavily on the handle with a tired, bored slump and lidded eyes. A lanyard with a tangled cord held an ID card that had gotten turned around and back to front so the picture couldn't be seen. His coat was safely wrapped up in his shoulder bag, itself inside the top document box, while Rogan himself wore the long white coat that one of the scientists had worn. He glanced up at the hall and door numbers, then took another turn. Other people passed him in the hall as he moved – site guards and employees alike, but their eyes mostly slid off him as he sought the right lab.
A pair of black-clad private guards waited outside in the hall, on either side of the entrance to the lab that he needed. They both looked in his direction as he rounded the corner and Rogan payed them no heed as he paused in front of a different lab door, fiddling with his lanyard and swiping the ID card in front of the lock. It blinked green but as the door opened and he began to wheel the trolley in, one of the guards looked again, then put a hand to his ear.
“You, wait there!” A voice called out, and Rogan didn't wait. Inside the lab he saw a collection of inquisitive faces look in his direction; bad luck for them. He moved quickly, pushing the trolley to the side near the door and pulling out his PET. The two security guards in the room with him stood froward, calling out, but Rogan ignored them. He pulled in the settings on the shriek program, set a delay and put it on the top box. The security raised their weapons and Rogan ran, pulling the ear plugs from his pocket and hurriedly trying to get them in as he slid down and behind the benches at the far end of the room. People were shouting as Rogan clamped his fingers in his ears over the plugs and braced himself. The black-clad guards burst into the room behind him, and Rogan felt the pulse of sound rippled across the room.
His limbs stiffened and a wave of dizziness made his head reel. Around him, other figures collapsed as he counted to three then pulled out the ear plugs and tried to move. His movements were sluggish, his limbs stiff as he tried to shake off the fringe effects of the pulse. There was no time to worry about that now. As he stood, another shaped moved nearby; the guard that had followed him tried, stiffly, to claw her way towards standing and drag her weapon towards Rogan across the bench that was between them. Rogan threw something that looked very expensive towards her then heaved himself over the bench after it, sliding across to her side. He heard the dull bark of several muted gunshots, and a tell-tale tugging feeling as he landed, driving the guard to the ground and delivering a quick rabbit punch to the back of her skull. He winced as she went down hard beneath him, and hurried checked her vitals; stable, but he had no way of knowing if he'd struck too hard. The best he could do was lie her out more carefully and move on. Even that was too much time wasted, he knew, but there was no point to killing anyone now, and Lyntael wouldn't ever forgive him.
He stumbled back to the trolley, shaking the lingering stiffness out of his limbs and recovered his PET. He threw off the lab coat and pulled his own back out of the box, sliding it on. His eye slid over the red stain on the discarded white coat and he didn't think about it. They'd be on him in seconds if he didn't get out of sight soon. The hall was empty as he looked out, and though he listened, there wasn't yet any sound of running feet. He darted to the lab door. Between the ones at the elevators, the ones in the cavern below, and the two at the door, Lance couldn't have more than a couple more guards with him. He'd handle it, somehow. Getting access was the next problem.