Things don’t always go as planned. A maxim to survive by…

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Happy reading!

Will

Last week’s story fork…

CHOICES:

1. Tell Crypto not to open it. General Curtis might not kill her. And even if he does, opening the door means we’ll all die.

2. Tell Crypto to open it. I can’t let Martinez die for me. I’d rather surrender and face whatever comes next.

The group chose #2 and here is how that played out…

 

Chapter 46

I glanced over  my shoulder at Crypto. “Can you cut the lights in this wing?”

The keys clacked in response. “Yeah, I think so.”

General Curtis pounded on the door. “Time’s up! Open it or she dies!”

I spoke to Crypto in a voice low enough to ensure I wouldn’t be heard in the hallway outside. “When I say, cut the lights and open the door at same time.”

Crypto’s eyes narrowed with doubt. “You sure?”

I nodded and then turned back to face Curtis through the glass. “We’re opening it! Don’t hurt her!”

The general’s hard eyes showed the merest flicker of satisfaction. He took a step back.

I peered through glass, marking the locations of the general, of the man who looked like me holding Martinez with a pistol to her head, of the four other soldiers that I could see through the small window in the door.

In seconds, I formulated a plan of attack. The target order. The relative positions of each target as I moved from one to the next. The decreasing odds of using the pistol on the first target, the second, the third, and on. The hand-to-hand alternatives that would be just as deadly.

I checked the chamber of the pistol and verified it was hot.

One hand with the pistol. One hand on the door. I took a deep breath and centered my focus. Like a lens bringing light to a burning point.

Victory or defeat a distant future concept.

Only action in the…

“Now.”

A burst of keystrokes and the areas on both sides of the door cut to black.

The muscles throughout my body tensed, ready to spring into action.

Shouting outside.

Someone bumped into the door.

My palm waited for the door to slide open.

Nothing.

Gunshots.

Two blinding flashes of light. Sharp flowers of fire that left a fading afterimage in the inky darkness.

The door still hadn’t moved!

“Open the door!” I shouted.

“It should’ve opened!” Crypto replied.

Thins shafts of light cut through the black. Flashlights swinging back and forth, bouncing glowing light off the walls and floor and ceiling.

“Open it!” I repeated, already knowing it was too late.

A silhouette moved on the other side of the door. The shadowed glass revealing the truth of my sinking feeling.

A streak of blood on the floor where Martinez had been seconds ago.

My eyes flicked to the side and I pressed my face against the thick glass to see to the side as much as possible.

A shaft of light traced across the floor.

Martinez’s body, face down. Her legs limps and twisted in an unnatural way.

The glow bounced up to the man that shared my appearance. He grabbed one of her boots and glanced back. A twisted grin and then he dragged her body down the hall and out of sight.

I pounded on the door, screaming my lungs out. “No! No! I’ll kill you!”

The beams of light moved, leaving that evil bastard and Martinez in shadows. The glowing discs coalesced on the other side of the door.

General Curtis stepped forward. “I told you not to test me. Her death is your fault, Scout. How many more innocents will have to die for you? Open the door.”

“Open the door! Open it!” I said.

I wanted, no needed, the door open so I could get my hands around the general’s neck and squeeze, tighter and tighter, until his eyes bulged out and his face turned purple. Until veins popped out on his forehead. Tighter still while he struggled to break free.

Squeezing like a vise through the shuddering convulsions and watching with pleasure while his eyes go dull and empty. Until his body goes limp with a final surrender.

“I’m sorry. I can’t,” Crypto said from the shadows behind me.

I pounded on the door with impotent rage. I’d done nothing to save her. And she’d paid the ultimate price for it.

I spun around and fell back against the wall. Rage thundered in my ears while mute despair blanketed my heart.

With nothing to be done, the despair won out.

I slumped to the floor.

Crypto’s face floated in the void, illuminated by the weak glow of the screen he was staring at.

I pinched my eyes shut and dropped my head into my hands.

“There’s no escape,” the general said. “And we’ll get the door open sooner or later. Why postpone the inevitable?”

I barely heard him.

All I could see and hear was the gunshots and her body being dragged away.

Crypto’s typing slowly puttered out and finally stopped. “I don’t understand it. The code. It’s like a living brain. The pathways and subroutines fragile like neural pathways. I think when I brute force hack through a command, it destroys that pathway. The code seems to reorganize and rebuild functionality around the destroyed sections. It’s like a brain rewiring itself after traumatic injury. I think that’s why my override commands only work once or twice.”

The volume of his voice changed as he continued. Even without looking up, I could tell he was facing in my direction. “I’m sorry, Scout. I really am.”

My reply came out before I could cut it off. “Yeah, well, being sorry isn’t going to bring Martinez back, now is it?”

I pressed my lips shut, wanting to say more, wanting to spit out the bile building in the back of my throat.

But, no. Blaming him didn’t help anything.

General Curtis’ voiced seeped through the sealed door. “I want four guards posted here. Nobody comes in or out without my permission. Get a team up here with plasma cutters. I want this door down yesterday!”

A flurry of voices as the Grays outside hurried to carry out his orders.

The dim figure of Doctor Tanaka eased down beside me. “I’m sorry, Scout. She was a good person.”

I nodded in somber silence. Still not trusting what I might say.

“How are you feeling?” Tanaka said.

“It just happened, doc. Don’t you think it’s a little early for psychotherapy?”

“I’m talking about physically. From your injuries.”

“Oh,” I said as I scanned my body. I shrugged. “I’ve been better.”

“I’m sure you have. As your doctor, I have to remind you that you need rest. You need time to recuperate.”

“Do you really think I’m going to be able to take a few weeks to heal up and then everything will be fine? Do you General Curtis is going to let that happen?”

He didn’t respond. Which was an answer all its own.

“Exactly.”

I leaned my head back against the wall and closed my eyes. My body felt heavy and empty, like a dead battery. The spark extinguished. The current drained. The stored power sapped away.

What next?

What was the point of even thinking about it?

Martinez was dead and we were trapped. General Curtis would have the door cut open and then we’d be captured.

Or killed, more likely.

The image of the other me came to mind. The fiend. The savage that I wanted to hurt more than anything and anyone.

“Who was the man out there that looks like me?”

“Skain?” Tanaka said.

“Is that his name?”

“You don’t remember?”

“No.”

“He’s your brother, an identical twin. Though you two are mirror image opposites in many ways.”

“What do you mean?”

“How you relate to authority, for one. Skain has always struck me as someone who relishes following orders. You, not so much.”

“How else?”

“Your inclinations, for another. Skain has always had a darker side to how he views life and how best to deal with it.”

“How is our relationship?”

“You were inseparable as children. Though, it seemed age and experience drew you apart. These are just my observations as an outsider. I don’t the know the details of your relationship.”

“Why would my own brother, my twin, stand against me?”

“I’m sure he believes that you’re a traitor. A danger to this community. I think a man with his convictions could do anything that his beliefs justified.”

If I could get to him, and stop myself from killing him, was there a way to get through to him? To bring him over to our side?

Surely, he knew me like no one else. And I him.

Normally, anyway. Right now, he was a demented phantasm of reflected likeness. A murderer in my mirror.

“Hey!” Crypto said from his perch. “Hey! Look at this!”

“What is it?” I asked.

“I’ve been surfing the network, trying to figure out how to manipulate the code without destroying it. No luck yet, but I did just run into a message flagged as urgent and it’s using a pathetic encryption algorithm. I swear these people have no idea. They’re still using Fourfish with 512 bit blocks. I had that cracked like a split nut years ago. You’d think they’d go with something more secure, like 5D AES with 2 factor authenticated keys. I mean, it’s laughable when you think—”

“Crypto! What did you find?” I asked, not wanting to hear any more about the tragic state of encryption on the network.

“Oh, yeah! Sorry!” The clacking of keys went quiet and his face turned from the glow of the screen, leaving half in light and half in shadow. “It’s Martinez! She’s alive!”

 

Chapter 47

I jumped up to my feet, grabbed the wall as a wave of dizziness hit, and then hurried over. “What do you mean?”

Crypto turned back to the screen with me looking on over his shoulder. He clicked a few keys and scrolled up on a time stamped log of communication packets sent over the network. He poked the screen with a thick, stubby finger. “Look at this one!” He pointed at the time stamp. “It got sent a few minutes ago.” He clicked another succession of keys and the screen filled with the details of the entry.

Martinez secured. Ready for questioning. Orders?

“Where is she?” I asked.

He jumped back out the screen filled with the scrolling log of archived communications. Older entries slid off the bottom of the screen as new ones populated at the top.

“Don’t know yet.”

“Then find out!”

“Didn’t we already cover the concept of you yelling at me not doing anything constructive?”

“Sorry.” The word came out flat, obligatory and devoid of feeling.

“Now, was that so hard?” Crypto asked with a patronizing tone.

“Careful.”

“I liked you better when you were fake apologizing.”

I watched the screen as his fingers danced over the keyboard. I didn’t much care how he felt about me, so long as he figured out where they were holding Martinez.

“Here we go!” Crypto said as he chose a an entry and jumped into its details.

I’ll be there soon. Keep this quiet.

I read the line, vaguely wondering if my molars would crack from clenching my jaws so hard.

“I think that’s from General Curtis,” Crypto said. “Hard to say for sure as there’s just the numerical ID for the sender’s tag. I could try to cross-reference it with previous messages to verify.”

“Don’t waste your time,” I replied. “She’s alive and I’m going after her.”

“How? There’s no way out.”

I clicked on my flashlight and shined it around the server room. Rows of floor to ceiling computers. Smooth black faces of polished plastic and metal. Lights blinking on and off, flashing signals of a functioning electronic brain.

And only one door.

One way in and one way out.

I walked down the narrow corridor to the perpendicular aisle at the end. The room went back another twenty feet with five more rows of servers. I quickly verified that each looked exactly the same as the first.

And that was it.

It wasn’t a big space. And there was just the one door. Data security obviously outweighed the benefits to personnel of having multiple points of egress. The choice made sense. These computers controlled vital systems on distant levels, much like a brain controlled a foot or hand. Electronic messages sent at the speed of light that tied the disparate pieces into a functioning whole.

A mechanical nervous system.

A system that required channels to transmit information.

And the thick layers of rock separating the levels made wireless connection impossible.

So it had to be a physical connection.

Which meant there were data cables. Cable that connected this room to every device on every level that it controlled.

I retraced my steps through each aisle, sweeping the flashlight along the bottoms and tops of the shelving units, looking for something specific now.

In the last row in the back, a sliver visible above and behind the stack of servers, the thing that had to be there.

I climbed up the stack, jamming the toes of my boots into the narrow crevices between the shelves. I reached behind the top machine and yanked the ceiling panel down.

Yes!

Our way out.

Maybe.

It would be tight.

For me, at least.

A conduit channel containing thick cables rising up through the ceiling. Presumably those cables ran to every level.

I scooted over the top machine and looked up into the channel with the flashlight.

The light got swallowed in the black distance above.

The cables were bundled and secured against the side of the channel. There was enough space left that it was obvious it had been designed to accommodate a repair technician.

A much smaller repair technician than me.

“Crypto! Come over here!”

He appeared below, looking up with a frown plastered on his face. “You aren’t seriously thinking—”

“Yeah. I am. And you’re coming with me.”

He shook his head. “No thanks. I prefer to take my chances here.”

I climbed down. “You’re going. It’s not a request.”

“Are you insane? You have no idea where that goes! Or for how long! What if you take a wrong turn and end up falling thousands of feet to your death?”

I shrugged. “Then I’ll be dead.”

“Then we’ll both be dead!”

“Did you find out where they’re keeping her?”

He shook his head. “No. No other messages came from or to that ID tag.”

A gentle hand touched my shoulder.

I spun around, fist tight and cocked, ready to level whoever it was.

Doctor Tanaka.

It required conscious effort, but I forced my fingers to uncoil and lowered my hand to my side. “What?”

“Scout,” he looked up at the hole in the ceiling, “you can’t go up there. Your body is ready to shut down as it is. And now you’re talking about climbing however many hundreds of feet. The exertion will kill you.”

He wasn’t lying. Even knowing Martinez was alive and knowing I would do anything to get to her, I couldn’t ignore my body. The signals telling my brain that its commands would only work for so long.

I was weak. Drained. Depleted. Done.

“Do you have anything in that bag that can help?” I asked.

“Only rest can heal you.”

“I’m not talking about healing. I’m talking about something to keep me going for a while longer. To give me what I need to do this.”

Tanaka pushed his glasses up the bridge of his nose as he frowned. “Something like that would only be temporary. And the additional strain on your system would probably kill you once the effects wore off.”

I held out my open palm. “Give it to me.”

He shook his head. “You’re asking me to sign your death warrant. I can’t do that.”

I grabbed him by the collar and slammed him against a wall of servers. “I’m not asking. Give it to me. Now!”

His eyes reflected equal parts fear and sadness. “You have some of your brother in you. I hope not more than you can handle.”

I stared holes through him, ready to exert as much force as was necessary. Ready to break bones, if it came to that.

“Are you going to hurt me?” he asked.

“Only if I must.”

The sadness overshadowed the fear.

“Come.”

I released him and we returned to the front aisle and his medical bag. I shined the flashlight into it as he dug through the contents.

He pulled out a dark orange translucent bottle that contained a few pills.

He opened the cap and dumped out the contents into his hand.

Four pills. Red and shiny. And large.

I reached for them and he snapped his hand shut. “These are synthetic anadone epinephrine. A type of manufactured adrenaline. One will give you a huge boost. Two will make it feel like lightning is crackling through your veins. Three will probably cause cardiac arrest. Four definitely will.”

His fingers slowly opened. “Don’t do this.”

I scraped all four pills out of his hand and popped two into my mouth.

“Don’t,” he repeated.

I swallowed and put the other two in my front pocket. “How long before they take effect?”

“Minutes.”

“How will I know?”

He frowned. “You’ll know. Try to keep your respiration under control. That will help to keep your heart rate from spiking and going critical.”

He kept talking, adding other precautions and warnings, but I’d already moved on.

I picked up Crypto as I returned to the back aisle and shoved him on top of the server stack. “Go.”

He looked at me like I was crazy.

“If you fall, I’ll catch you.”

“Yeah, and what if you fall?”

“Then we both die.”

“How reassuring,” he replied before turning to the pillar of bundled cables. He found purchase in the uneven spaces and began climbing up.

In seconds, his boots disappeared into the hole.

With the flashlight on and tucked pointing up in my pants, I started up after him.

Within minutes, I felt it.

The effects of the exertion. The weakness.

But also the growing effects of the pills. The jagged energy arcing through my chest. The hot blood rushing through my limbs in surging waves.

Crypto’s voiced echoed down the narrow channel. “Where are we headed?”

Since we didn’t know for sure where they were keeping Martinez, it was a guess. But hopefully, it was an educated one.

CHOICES:

1. She was obviously injured, so they would take her to the Infirmary level. General Curtis wouldn’t be able to question her if she died. So she must be locked up in a room there.

2. General Curtis would take her to where he felt the most secure. To where he was surrounded by people of unquestioned loyalty. Other Grays. And that meant he was holding her in a room somewhere on the Security level.

What do you think should happen next? Let me know in the comments!