Derek was a benefit to us!
He helped us plan, gave us a direction to pursue, which we totally didn't think of.
Right there he was worthwhile!
Plus, as I've alluded to elsewhere, he was cuddly and fun in bed.
Totally not enough to marry someone, and before you ask, NO, I have NEVER made that mistake.
I've gone to bed with plenty of people because they were fun to be with, and even started a couple longish relationships that way, but "fun in bed" is not a reason I used to marry someone.
But now we had to get planning again. We had a bad guy to take down.
Chapter 23: Leave It
The departure from Los Alamos was more carefully planned than their arrival.
After equipping their team from what she called “Bluebeard’s Closet,” Kendra reached out to Dick Evans again for weapons permits. He assured her they would all be scrupulously correct and pass any inspection that the Border Guards or Rangers could muster. Then, he demanded partial payment and got both Cass and Kendra to give him their combined stories.
Alivia, the most junior of the agents and the only one who was not violating orders by helping, utilized the OutLook network to officially check-in. She carefully probed for information in her routine report to the Duty Agent. No, nothing going on, no exciting assignments, no juicy gossip. All normal.
Mac and Lisa worked furiously on multiple computers. They reinfiltrated HLC’s servers and security protocols, created legitimate-seeming authorizations for the agents, and generally did what they could to smooth their imminent return to the lion’s den. Mac paid particular attention to Kaine’s personal systems, seeking to glean any nuggets she could. She expanded her search from his office to as much of his life as she could uncover: home, transport, communications, subscriptions, and on and on.
Cass, meanwhile, duplicated her work. She sent time-locked copies to numerous friends and colleagues at other companies or universities. The messages she sent were cryptic, but she chose carefully. The people who received the files would not only respect the confidentiality and not try to access them early but also know what could be done with her research when the documents were unlocked. She set the countdown to a month, figuring everything would be resolved one way or another by then.
The other agents took turns re-equipping, resting, and patrolling, orchestrated by Master Chief Stone. Unsurprisingly, there wasn’t a single grumble or complaint. Stone spent most of her time huddled with Montana, working up plans. They got on surprisingly well and spent most of the time poking holes in scenarios and crafting objections. Finally, they had a concept they felt confident in.
Derek spent most of the afternoon alone in his bedroom. Cass and Kendra were busy, and the others didn’t trust him enough to include him, so he explained he’d spend the time resting.
At five, all the leaders save Mac convened for a final check-in.
“Quick review,” began Stone. “Kaine will know that his bully boys have screwed up in an hour, ninety minutes at most, when they fail to make contact. We don’t know his reaction, other than fury, but he will react. With any luck, he’ll react stupidly, but we can’t rely on stupidity.”
“What’s your thought, then?” asked Cass.
Montana answered. “We believe he’ll dispatch the largest group of goons he can get his hands on from Houston, probably via private air rather than ground transport.”
“Makes sense,” concurred Cass.
“It will take a couple hours to organize, but we expect them on the ground in Los Alamos by ten tonight at the latest. He’ll strip the local offices bare and send them as auxiliaries. Mac’s research suggests that won’t be more than another dozen or so.”
“How many do you think he can pull from Houston?” inquired Kendra.
“One hundred twenty,” answered Stone with certainty. “That’s the entire security force from the Houston campus, plus an off-the-books team of thugs that he keeps to do his dirty work.”
“Holy Hera,” breathed Kendra. “And we have fourteen with Derek.”
“We’re not going to be here,” reminded Stone. “Montana?”
“We have valid travel permits, pre-cleared for crossing the border, for every agent. We won’t need the weapons permits you’ve gotten, Kendra, not until we’re on the ground in Houston, so we’ve sent them ahead with all the matching weaponry. Anything they’re still armed with stays here.”
“Cera won’t like that,” muttered Kendra.
“No, and neither do I,” said Stone, surprising her. “Montana pointed out we needed to be clean crossing into Texas. We absolutely cannot afford to get on the radar any more than is unavoidable.”
“I see it. Okay, so the fourteen of us get to Houston –”
“Twelve,” said Montana.
Kendra frowned, obviously counting heads. “Twelve? No, that’s not right. We have fourteen.”
“Derek’s not coming to Houston, not directly. And neither is Cass.”
“What?” yelled Kendra. “That’s bullshit!”
“Sit down and shut up!” barked Stone. When Kendra hesitated, she repeated it. “Sit. Down.”
“Now listen. We’ve been over this with Cass, and she’s on board with this.”
Kendra turned to Cass. “Is that true?”
“It makes sense,” said a miserable Cass. “Just listen.”
“Derek is a noncombatant,” said Stone. “This morning, you didn’t know he was alive. How do you expect him to go forth and do battle when he says he just got out of the hospital?”
“Derek makes sense,” Kendra admitted. “But Cass?”
“She was a challenge,” admitted Montana. “We know she can kick some serious ass when she has to. She’s also got decent computer skills. But she doesn’t have any training as an agent, nothing on infiltration, nothing on team tactics. Frankly, she’d be a liability in any small group operation.”
“Hey!” Cass heard it before, but it was worse in front of Kendra.
Montana shook her head. “Nothing personal. On the other hand, she’s the perfect escort for Derek.”
Kendra was cautious. “Go on.”
“First, she’s got those self-defense skills. That means she can take care of Derek if they run into problems, at least to some degree. She’s also driven your Bugatti, which puts her in an exclusive club, just her and Mac. We figured you don’t want to leave it behind again.”
“Wait, Mac? My Bugatti?” Kendra shook her head, trying to wrap her mind around Mac driving her beloved Veyron. “Oh, right. Can’t leave it here if we don’t know when we’ll be back.”
“Exactly. Or who will get here before us.”
“Then your plan is to have Cass and Derek drive where, exactly?”
“Houston,” said Stone. “About fourteen hundred kilometers.”
Kendra turned to Aiyana. “Are you sure you’re up to it? Good roads, but you’re going to be driving at night.”
“I can do it,” Aiyana said. Maybe her confidence was bravado, but her eyes were firm and clear.
“I’m not going to be there to pull any strings and get you cleared for any high-speed runs.”
“I wouldn’t want to do any at night,” replied Cass. “But we’ve already cleared a route to the Texas border. I’ll push her right to the unrestricted limit. That gets us into Texas well before dark, and I can more or less coast to Houston. Oh, I wanted to ask.”
“Do you have any systems to pick up patrols by their emissions? If you do, I can push it a little harder and arrive sooner.”
Kendra nodded. “She can pick up and analyze signals from surrounding vehicles, out to a couple klicks. I don’t usually use it, but it’s there. I’ll show you how to activate it.”
“That’ll help. Doing that, I may cut the total drive time down to about five hours.”
“Then what?” asked Kendra.
“Ah, well, you hadn’t let me finish,” said Stone. “The twelve of us leave here for the six o’clock tube to Houston. We’re there and out of the port by seven. We’ll pick up the weapons at a drop that your friend Evans arranged, and on to HLC.”
“Bang bang bang,” added Montana.
“Wait, wait. What about Lisa?” Kendra asked. “She’s less of a combatant than Cass!”
“True,” replied Mantchev. “And I don’t really want to do this. The problem is, to do this as fast as they have it planned, they need both Mac and me to work our magic on the computers in case our hacks get noticed.”
“She’s not going to be on the assault,” assured Stone. “You’re right. She knows less about combat than Cass.”
“We’re going to stash her in an OutLook safe house,” said Montana. “Celsey’s a little banged up, so she’s going to play bodyguard. That’s the rendezvous point, too. Alivia checked, and it’s sitting empty right now. She’s signed it out to herself as a transient agent, all proper.”
“Good thinking,” said Kendra.
Montana continued. “Lisa’s the geek support for the team heading to HLC. That’s you, the Chief, Sanzari, Bruce, Michael, and Jesse.”
“You’re splitting us up?”
“Security is going to be the next best thing to nil,” reminded Stone. “Getting a half-dozen of us in without incident will be challenging. We’ve stacked the deck in the servers, and we’re going to be wearing HLC uniforms. That should get us access to the security wing. From there, well, we need people who know how to break things.”
“And my team will be in reserve,” continued Montana. “Mac will be our support, but we’re going to be dressed as office workers instead of security. We ought to go pretty much unnoticed.”
“Even that late?” Kendra said.
“HLC has staff on-campus 24/7,” Aiyana said. “That goes double for Houston.”
“What if Kaine’s gone home?” Kendra asked.
“Then we divert,” answered Stone quickly. “Mac is monitoring him in real-time through the internal HLC network. If this goes down like we think it will, he’s not going to go anywhere until he’s gotten reports from the pack he sends here.” She shrugged. “Downside of being the asshole-in-charge.”
“Speaking of the pack,” said Montana. “We ought to wrap this up.”
“Right,” agreed Stone. “Questions? No? Let’s be about it, then.”