Of course, every crazy decision has consequences.
For us, the immediate consequence was getting yelled at by Master Chief Stone.
And with good reason, from her point of view.
Here we were, on the run and all, and we decide to get married?
Ten out of ten for style, yes, but minus several million for good thinking.
In her opinion, at least.
We knew what we were doing, and events would prove us right.
But to find out more, read on!
Chapter 22: Uncomfortable
After a round of kisses, Kendra said, “That has to be the shortest honeymoon on record.”
“I, for one, demand more,” said Derek. His arms were around each of their waists and dipped lower.
“Later,” insisted Kendra. “If we have to didee-mao, we won’t get any warning.”
“She’s right,” supported Cass. “I’ve learned that minutes make a difference.”
“Fine, I’ll take a rain check. But no dumping me in a tube station,” said Derek.
“We didn’t dump you,” protested Cass. “We had no choice.”
“Hey, guys? This really isn’t the time,” interjected Kendra. “Why don’t we save the “don’t dump me again” conversation for after we figure out where we’re going next?”
“Fine,” grumbled Derek. “Wait. You don’t have a plan?”
“We were getting there,” said Stone, walking in. “Then you showed up.”
She stepped over to the table and readily righted it. “Patrols are out on rotation again. Let’s get back to work.”
Derek pulled a chair closer.
“And what do you think you’re doing?” Stone said chillingly.
“If this is about my wives and me, I’m entitled –”
“Wives?” said Stone, incredulous. “When did this happen?”
“About ten minutes ago,” answered Kendra. She had the decency to look sheepish. Not Aiyana, though.
“Bloody amateurs. Look, you say this is your fiancé – husband, now. Fine. But he doesn’t have the background, and we don’t have the time to bring him up to speed.”
“You mean all the shit you’ve dealt with? What do you think we were doing the last hour?” he asked.
“I figured you were getting busy,” Stone said matter-of-factly. “It’s what I would have done.”
“No such luck,” Derek groused. “I got a kiss and a quick feel.”
“You got robbed.”
“Tell me about it. Chief, you’re not leaving me out of this. Whatever’s going on, I’m in it now, for better or worse.”
“He’s got a point,” said Montana, settling in. “And who knows? Maybe a fresh pair of ears will hear something we keep missing.”
“Fine, fine. Just don’t ask any stupid questions,” warned Stone.
Stone glowered, then turned to Kendra. “We were talking about interrogations.”
“Right.” She checked the clock. “They’ve been locked away for a good while now. They’re probably just about ready to talk if they’re the amateurs we think they are.”
Derek’s head whipped around. “Interrogation? Who?”
“I told you, no stupid questions,” Stone snarled. “I’ve got no problems duct taping your mouth shut.”
Cass reached out to touch Derek’s arm. “Later,” she whispered.
“Go ahead and get started,” Stone continued to Kendra. “The sooner we know what they know, the better we can plan.”
“I agree,” said Kendra, rising. “Back shortly. Oh, Cass?”
“Where did we put the soldering iron?”
“In my workshop, on the back bench,” Cass said, eyes widening. “You’re not going to use that on them, are you?”
“Naah, I won’t even touch ‘em. But it’ll add some drama.” She walked out, whistling.
“It’s all about the attitude going in,” explained Montana. “Part confidence, part ruthlessness, part casualness. She’s got it down,” she finished admiringly.
“I don’t think that she’s going to get anything useful from them,” said Stone.
“I don’t understand. Kendra’s going to go, what? Torture prisoners for information?” Montana nodded. “Why did you tell her to do it?” demanded Derek.
Stone fixed him with a look. “That’s almost a stupid question. Not quite, though, so I’ll answer it. If they don’t know anything, we’re no worse off than we are now. If they do, then it’s a bonus. We have to eliminate the possibility.”
“Ah,” said Derek, still uncomfortable with the idea of Kendra interrogating someone.
“We have two problems,” redirected Stone. “OutLook, and HLC. If you two, sorry, three, are ever going to have any peace, we’re going to have to take care of them both. Whether that means we shut them down or just do a little old-fashioned regime change, well, we’ll have to figure it out.”
She paused and waited for comments. When there were none, she continued.
“Our assets include two computer experts, two specialists in hurting people and breaking things, a retired assassin, a genius scientist, nine agents, and a whatever Derek is.”
“Hey!” Derek protested.
“No offense.” Stone pointedly turned to the others. “I’m not going to sugarcoat this. It doesn’t matter what we do. We are running uphill. We need to look at this very carefully because if we screw up, all we’re going to have are shallow graves. Montana, what did you say about OutLook in Sonora?”
Montana thought, trying to remember the thread of the earlier discussion. “It’s not a region we work in much. We probably have a half-dozen agents in Phoenix, maybe one or two others on assignment, and that’s about it. I’m sure Mac can get the numbers.”
“What about the headquarters? New Orleans, yes?”
“Yes. It depends. The fewest people I’ve ever known to be there is about fifty, and the most were just under two hundred. I’m not sure how many people actually work for OutLook, but I do know there are three hundred sixty-one active agents.”
Stone turned to Mantchev. “And HLC?”
“Los Alamos is a major research center,” said Lisa. “There are probably eight or nine hundred people working in the labs directly, and another five hundred support staff.”
“Any of which can be recruited by Kaine, even if as cannon fodder,” added Stone grimly. “How many other campuses do they have?”
“Geez, I don’t really know,” said Mantchev. “I’ve been here, Houston, San Francisco, and Tulsa.” She shrugged. “Public information will be easy enough to get. My backdoors might be able to get us into the hidden numbers. The problem is I didn’t plan on tapping into the personnel department. I’ll need Mac’s help.”
“Oh, yeah, I’ll help, no problem, and to answer Cris’s question about Sonora, we have those six in Phoenix, two on assignment in Tucson, one traveling to the Confederacy, and I checked on the Republic as well, we have four each in Dallas, Austin, San Antonio, and Oklahoma City, five roving teams of two, plus eight solo agents either on missions or transiting, that means there are thirty-four total, but they’re scattered all over, so sure, I can help Lisa, I left some doors open when we were working on the system last week, come on over here, we’ll get into it now.”
Stone waited while Mantchev switched places. “Montana, check me if you disagree, but this is what I’m thinking. One, we need to get out of here sooner than soon. We might have a day if that. Los Alamos is simply too hot for us to stay. Second, we need to deal with HLC first.”
“How do you figure that?” demanded Derek. “Look, I’m no spy or anything.”
“You’re bloody not,” Stone said, but Derek ignored the interruption.
“HLC is a huge company, it’s a multinational, hell, it has a presence in space! Montana even said OutLook is, what, a few hundred agents? Most of them out on assignments at any time, one way or another? Why take on the bigger foe?”
Montana answered. “There are a few reasons. First, while OutLook may have taken the contracts, HLC is the one that took them out. That means if we eliminate them, we eliminate the threat. OutLook, specifically Talbott, won’t care about Cass if there’s no money in it. She might have issues with Kendra, but Kendra’s going to have her own issues with Talbott, so I think we’ll just let those two sort it out. Second, there might be more bodies at HLC, but everyone at OutLook has at least basic training in the field, which means weapons, self-defense, and all the other nastiness that goes with it. At HLC, there are how many security people?” She turned to Mac.
“Um, I don’t know, give me a minute to look it up.”
“It doesn’t really matter,” said Montana, waving her off. “The point is that security is just part of what HLC does, and most of them are rent-a-cops, not properly trained. Just look at the jokers here.”
“Completely useless,” agreed Kendra as she walked in, collected a kiss from both Aiyana and Derek, and dropped into a chair.
“Done already?” asked Stone, surprised.
“The only thing those bozos knew was that they had been ordered by Kaine to do a job, and the job was to watch this house and apprehend anyone who tried to enter it.”
“How did you get the information so fast?” said an impressed Derek.
“It’s amazing what people will tell you when you’re holding a hot soldering iron. I told them I wouldn’t use it anywhere that would be visible to the public.” Kendra shook her head. “They couldn’t talk fast enough. Most of the squad they had were local yoyos from the Los Alamos campus. The only ones from Houston were the ones in the cave. Good shot, Cris, by the way. Those three? Snipers. According to the survivors, they were former Special Forces.”
“Green Beanies?” scoffed Stone. “No wonder they couldn’t pull the trigger.”
“It’s a little late for institutional rivalry,” chided Kendra. “They never had a chance. Anyways, the ones pulled over, and the bunch that actually tried to get in here, they were all locals.”
“Did they say anything about who they report to?”
“Yes, but it’s a dead end. Everything went through the trio in the cave and back to Kaine. The local security chief, someone named Alvarez, was cut out of the loop. He was told he was losing eighty percent of his force and that he needed to suck it up.” Kendra smiled. “Alvarez isn’t much liked by his people. The one who told me was pleased as punch to share that tidbit.”
“What have you done with them?” asked Cass. “According to SARAH, we don’t have enough freezer space left.”
“And have you ever tried to clean blood out of a carpet?” asked SARAH. “No, because you have me.”
“I haven’t done anything with them,” insisted Kendra. “I figure we’ll dump them somewhere on our way out of town.”
“Fair dues,” said Stone. “Did they say anything else useful?”
“Only to confirm there were only two groups. The ones we intercepted here, and the ones the LAPD took care of. They only check in twice a day, six and six, so we have a few hours before Kaine has any reason to get suspicious.” She looked around with a bright smile. “What did I miss?”
“Montana was explaining why we take on HLC,” Derek said.
“Makes sense.” She ignored Derek’s goggling eyes. “Cris, were you finished?”
“Not quite. Where was I?”
“Rent-a-cops,” prompted Mantchev.
“Yeah. Even if there are more people, the number of effective combat troops and those troops' effectiveness will be way lower at HLC. And my final point is actually related to the first. HLC took out the contracts, but we don’t know who did it. We know Kaine is the one who’s been tasked to execute them, but who he reports to is a mystery. That’s one question we absolutely have to clear up, no ifs, ands, or buts.”
“That’s easy,” chimed in Derek. “Look at the ownership.”
“Explain,” said Stone.
“You say this Kaine isn’t reporting to his superior or anyone in his normal chain of command?”
“Not as far as we can tell,” agreed Kendra.
“Then the only person who’d have enough pull to get a Director –”
“Deputy Director,” corrected Stone.
“Deputy Director,” continued Derek. “An upper executive, okay? The only people who could do that outside the usual hierarchy are owners or someone on the Board. Find out who owns HLC, and you’ll have your man.”
Stone stared at him. “I will be dipped in shit,” she finally said. “That is bloody brilliant. Cass, Lisa, do you know who that might be?”
The two scientists exchanged a look.
“No clue,” admitted Cass. “Honestly, I’ve never much cared about the corporate structure. I just wanted to do my research and be left alone.”
Lisa nodded her head in agreement.
“If I didn’t know you both better, I’d accuse you of being ivory tower intellectuals,” complained Stone. “Mac, it looks like it’s up to you again.”
“Already looking,” said Mac, typing furiously.
“I’m going to add one more thing,” Stone said. “We have a dozen combat troops. Whether we take on two hundred or two thousand, if we get into a firefight, we’re well and truly fucked. So we have to hit the softest target possible, the one with the most opportunity to sneak in and out. You did it once, on the fly, to HLC. I’m betting we can do it again.”
“So do we go after Kaine and hope he rolls on his boss, or do we try to cut the snake’s head off?” asked Kendra.
“Kaine,” said Cass.
“Boss,” said Montana simultaneously.
“Cass. You first,” directed Stone.
“Kaine hates me. I don’t know why, but he does. If we don’t take him out, he’s going to keep after me.”
“Kaine may hate you, but the owner wants you dead because of business. Take him out, and we can take out Kaine at our leisure.”
“Yes, but –” The discussion continued while Mac searched.
Finally, Stone interceded. “I think it has to come down to which one we can actually reach. Montana, you and Mac got yourselves into the HLC servers once. I think you can get to Kaine. Unless this mystery person is brain-dead on security, we might not have the opportunity.”
“It might have to be Kaine,” interjected Mac. “I can’t find anything about the owner yet, there are so many nesting trusts and blind alleys and holding companies, it’s an absolute nightmare, the structure is scattered across I don’t know how many different countries, and not just this continent, there’s European and Asian and Lunar holdings, frankly it looks like HLC is just part of a really immense financial web, we’re not talking billions of credits, we’re looking at trillions and HLC is just a tiny, tiny piece, but one thing I’ve noticed is that there seem to be, well, business relationships between many of the pieces, like HLC leases propulsion modules to TransLunar, but TransLunar is part of the same organization, you see what I mean?”
“Do you have a name or not?” said Stone.
“Not yet, Master Chief,” said Mac. “The closest I’ve come is the D.D. Harriman Trust, but that’s based in Geneva, and I’m having trouble getting through their firewall, I can do it, but I will need time, well, not me actually, it would take me the rest of my life to get through it manually, but my little pets are working the problem, so even if we have to move they’ll keep digging.”
“I think that settles it,” said Stone. “Back to Houston.”