Yes, we’re into the final stretch of this first volume! Hang on, though, it’s gonna be a bumpy ride.
The first few chapters of this section don’t have me and don’t have Cass in them; we were both captured and stuck behind bars. Literally.
Put it on your calendars now: November 24.
Because Adam is going to do a blockbuster sale and promotional blitz that day!
He’s going to be all over the web, including at least one (and maybe two) LIVE appearances, PLUS giveaways and contests and all sorts of other fun things.
MOST of this will be on Facebook (see the button below), but he’s also going to be on the Meet The Author Podcast at 7pm EST (4pm PST) on the 24th as well.
Don’t miss out!
Chapter 2: With A Little Help
“You sure this is gonna work?”
“No. Stop bugging me! You’re making me nervouser – more nervous – whatever! Go away and bother Mac!”
Dr. Mantchev was working away at a terminal. They’d checked out of the original hotel by the simple expedient of driving away and were holed up in a different hotel. While not Mac’s equal in IT, she did know HLC’s systems better and had left many “back doors” for herself over the years.
“Nothing yet, but I want to give them a chance to notice, it’s still early and I don’t dare use any high-priority channels to try to contact them.”
Montana’s plan was simple: reach as many friends and colleagues as she could trust, bring them together, and assault HLC directly. She called it “getting a bigger hammer”.
Mantchev hadn’t liked the idea and was working to try to smooth their way in, or perhaps even spoof them into transporting Cass off the grounds. At the very least, they could use her hacks to determine Cass’s exact location.
They’d worked on both ends all night. It was now nearing dawn, and they were all exhausted.
“Lisa – Dr. Mantchev – why don’t you knock off for a while and get some sleep? One slip and we could have HLC come down on us before we have a chance to prepare.”
The spare redhead grimaced, straightening up from the computer. “I’ve done longer shifts. It’s amazing what you can manage when you’re cramming for a final.” A faint grin crossed her face, then faded as she remembered why she was on this particular shift. “I’ll be fine. I’m almost done, anyway, at least for now. They’re maintaining pretty good security. I can’t get a lock on where they’re keeping Cass.”
“What about the two guards? What were their names, Malone and something?”
“Beth. Yeah, thought of that, but all I can dig up is an assignment to internal security, ordered by guess who?”
“Got it in one.” Mantchev shook her head. “They’re not even on the comms.”
“That’s odd.” Montana went to the lone bed and lay down, fingers twined behind her head. “Staying off comms. Direct order by Kaine. Assigned…” Her voice trailed off as she pondered these data, and for a few minutes the only sound was the tap-tap-tapping of keys.
“Mac!” Montana’s excited voice shattered the quiet.
“What, what’s wrong?” exclaimed a startled McAllister.
“Nothing! I know how to find them! Her!” Montana fairly bounced off the mattress.
“Lisa, HLC uses an automated directory, right?”
Mantchev looked confused.
“When you dial in the main line, not someone’s direct line, you don’t get a person, do you?”
“No, you get – oh, right. Yes, it’s automated.”
“And if you’re not at your desk when the call comes in?”
“You get paged.”
Montana’s grin threatened to split her face. “That’s what I hoped. Mac, hack the phones. You can do that, right? “
“Easy,” she scoffed. “How many lines do you want?”
“How many can you get? At least a dozen.”
It was only a few moments before Mac reported, “Ready.”
“I want you to set up a program to auto-dial HLC, search the directory for Beth and Malone, and have them paged.”
Mac started typing again. “How long, and how often?”
“Let’s say, every five seconds. And keep it going as long as you can manage it.” Montana was practically hopping with glee.
“That’s not going to work,” insisted Mantchev. “I don’t know Kaine, but if I were him I would have ordered them not to answer the pages,” objected Mantchev.
“I’m sure they are too,” answered Montana. “But they’re only human. Once, they can ignore. Twice, sure. Hell, maybe ten times, I don’t know. Unless they’re superhuman, I’ll bet that by the time they get, oh, twenty or thirty pages they’ll at least call down to get the system to shut up!” She laughed. “We’re gonna annoy them into making a mistake!” She picked up the padd that was still tapped to the video feed. “Can we get a shot of the door on this?”
“No problem, I already found it, it’s up on that padd, just tap the top left corner, it should show them there, one’s a blonde the other a brunette, that’s about all you can see from the camera angle.”
Montana found the appropriate corner, tapped. “Audio?”
“Not on that camera.”
“Ready,” said Mac a few seconds later.
Montana watched the feed. At first there didn’t seem to be anything happening. Then she began to notice slight movements in one or the other at about five-second intervals. They held their post, though the twitching got stronger and stronger. Their hands strained to grab their comm units in response to the near-constant pages.
“We ready on the comm intercept?” she asked Mac.
“Set and scanning.”
“Don’t think it’ll be long.” Montana was horrified to find herself giggling in anticipation.
Now the two guards were totally distracted from their duty. An animated conversation was going on – hands waving, hair flying.
“Come on, comm the switchboard. Tell them to cut off the pages. Come on!” Montana whispered. She saw the blonde turn to the panel next to the door. “Internal comm!” she warned Mac.
“Capturing,” replied Mac. Montana continued to watch mutely as the pantomime continued until it suddenly stopped with the blonde turning back to her alert position.
“That’s it,” said Montana. “Cut the calls. What’d we get?”
“Let me isolate it, clean it up a little, it’s not very good quality because I had to pass it through a bunch of traps and filters before reaching us, and I don’t know if we captured the inbound audio, just the outbound from the panel, but that doesn’t matter, I hope.”
“Mac!” warned Montana.
From the speakers came a burst of white noise, then a voice.
“What the fuck is going on with these pages?…We’re off the grid, you stupid shits, can’t you get that straight?… What do you mean, you can’t?… Whose orders? How about Director Kaine’s orders, you assholes!… Then shut off the system in this area until you can track the fault!… Incompetent shit! Fine! Corridor 42 Hotel Hotel Golf…. No, TWO Hotels – Hotel, Hotel!… Malone!… Yes, and Lyons” as well…. Don’t fucking argue with me, you bug! Shut them off now!… Idiot!” The audio cut off there.
“Did you get that?” asked Montana, expecting Mac’s reply. Instead, Mantchev spoke.
“42 HHG. I know where that is.” She shuddered.
“It’s the psych labs, that’s section 42, and if I remember right, a bunch of odd things are along that corridor.”
“Why does a company like HLC have psych labs? And define “odd”.”
“A holdover from early days, when they needed to experiment on the psychological effects of ground-based launch systems – the worry was, taking away the big old chemical boosters would make people frantic, almost phobic, about launches. So they tested. There’s isolation labs, sensory deprivation tanks, rubber rooms – the things that you don’t talk about.”
Montana tried to imagine Cass left in an isolation tank for two days. She couldn’t. “We’ve got to get her out, fast as we can.”
“Agreed,” said Mantchev. “How?”
“That’s our job.” She sat down and faced Mac. “Right. Who can we bring in on this? We need bodies,” she added, raising her hand before continuing. “They have to be experienced.” She stood again, agitated, and started ticking points off on her fingers.
“They can’t be at the Complex. No way would Talbott let them out; besides, she’ll tap every communication in or out forever, if she hasn’t already.” She paced the length of the small room. “Damn! We’re going to be almost comically short of equipment, too!”
“I can help with that, it’s just a hacking job to get some deliveries to us, I know all sorts of places that aren’t picky about who buys their stuff as long as the credit is good, and they won’t know that it’s not really our credit.”
“Whatever, all the guns won’t do any good if you don’t have anyone to carry them!” interjected Mantchev with a note of desperation.
“Do you have any smart ideas?” snarled Montana. “No? Then I suggest you shut it!” She resumed pacing.
“They have to be friends of ours – you or me, Mac, or Kendra’s. Otherwise, they’re not gonna go against Talbott, even if she hasn’t put out some sort of warning about us.”
“And they have to be close enough to get here, remember that too, we only have a couple days, that means that all the people we know off-Earth are out of the picture, though that’s really not so many, and I guess it wouldn’t matter anyways because they won’t be used to the gravity here any longer and wouldn’t be able to fight, so that means that Ginnilee’s out, and Tammy – Novak, not Bennett, don’t know what happened to TB, and didn’t Deb Svicle head out a few months ago?”
“What about Celsey?”
Mac tapped the keyboard. “Last I heard, she was in Big Sky on some sort of roving assignment; she might be able to get away.”
“Ping her. She’s hell on wheels.”
“Okay, who else? Ooh, I think – never mind, it won’t work.”
“What won’t work?” asked Mantchev, coming closer. “If there’s a chance that one of your friends will help, if you really think there’s a hope in hell that you can put some kind of plan together, then you’ve got to get them!” Her voice broke. “I’ve known Aiyana for, god, I don’t remember how many years! She is My Best Friend,” – Montana could hear the capitalization – “And I will be dammed if I sit here and listen to you bitch and whine about people you can’t get and things you can’t try!”
She pushed up her sleeve. “See this?” A small tattoo showed on her upper arm – the names “Lisa” and “Aiyana” intertwined, with the words “Friends Forever” below.
“She’s in there because she came back for me! Now, I don’t know either of you, but Aiyana thought enough of you to put her life in your hands! We will get her out!”
Mac and Montana shared a look.
“Bruce. Oh, Tom too!”
“Tom’s out; he had surgery last week, but I’ll bet we can convince Joyce, Chris, and Jesse, especially Jesse, he still owes me from the last poker game and he’ll get in just to clear his debt.”
“How much does he owe you?”
“Three kilos of gold.”
“Yeah, I’d sell you my mother to get out of that,” said Montana. “I didn’t know you played poker.”
Mac looked away. “It’s just calculating odds; I can do that in my sleep, and it gives me a chance to be just one of the gang.” Personal moment ended, Mac said, “Michael!”
“Which one? Moody? Lehrer?”
“No – Horgan. He has a crush on me,” she said shyly.
Montana managed to not even smile. “You know – I think Sanzari’s available, or if not, we can probably shake her loose. She was in Chicago, right?”
“On that submarine,” agreed Mac. “Temporary duty on the NIS Chicago,” she said, reading the information. “All I have to do is hack their database and issue a TDY order for here. No problem.”
“That other terminal clean?” asked Montana.
“Clean enough,” answered Mac. “Not secure, I wouldn’t say anything important on it, why?”
Montana was already at the keys. “Divide and conquer. Simple coded messages, use their dummy accounts, let them make contact with you or me, and if they don’t, we count them out.”
Mantchev had pulled out her padd and sat down on the bed. “I have some friends too,” she began, but Montana stopped her with and upraised hand.
“Unless they’re trained in hand-to-hand combat, covert infiltration, and a side order of assassination, it’s not going to do much good. I appreciate the offer, though.”
“What about a SEAL?”
“Yeah, he’d qualify.”
“She does indeed,” replied Mantchev pointedly. “Master Chief Mikaila Stone. Fifteen years in service before being retired.”
“Being retired? Why?”
Mantchev was tapping at her padd again. “She kicked the shit out of the Team commander when he tried to tell her to stay behind on a mission.”
Montana smiled, and it was a frightening thing. “I think we’ll get along just fine.” She stuck out a hand. “And my friends call me Cris.”
“Lisa.” The two women clasped hands then resumed their planning.
Messages sent, waiting for replies, Montana asked Lisa, “Is there anyone inside you can trust?”
Lisa shook her head. “That rathole? Not a chance. If we were back in Los Alamos, sure, I could give you a dozen names…” Her voice trailed off. “Oh, I am such an idiot!” she exclaimed.
“A dozen names! Los Alamos is an hour from here on a JumpBug; I’m sure that I could get lots of Cass’s friends to come help!”
Montana was shaking her head when Lisa stopped. “No good. It’s a nice thought, but how many of your friends are through work? HLC?”
Lisa’s face showed her realization. “Most of them,” she admitted.
“So they’re out.” Before Mantchev could object, Montana continued. “I’m sure they’re good people, but right now, all they know is that you and Cass have gone off the reservation. All their information is coming from HLC. You sure you can convince them otherwise?”
“No, probably not.”
“Any of “em as close to Cass as you are?”
“Any of them former SpecOps, like Stone?”
“Given the choice between listening to you telling them horror stories about what went on at HLC, and what HLC is likely to be telling them, are there any – any – that you’d be willing to trust with our lives?”
Yet slower. “No.”
Not unkindly, Montana said, “Then I’m afraid that it won’t help us – or Cass. Don’t worry, Lisa. This is what I do – break things and hurt people. Let me do what I know.”
“But I definitely want that Master Chief on board. How sure are you that you can get her looped in?”
“Mikki? She’s always bitching about not having any good ways to blow off steam since she left the Teams; she said the last good fight she got into was last year when she was visiting Newport News and took on a squad of MP’s at a local bar.”
Curiosity piqued, Montana asked, “What happened?”
Grinning at the memory, Mantchev said, “According to her, after she left the first squad “sorry and sore”, the second squad came in the bar, looked, turned around and double-timed it out of there. That was the end of her fun because nobody else would take her on.”
“I definitely want her on our side for this,” emphasized Montana.
Montana turned at the sudden sound of Mac’s voice. “What’s wrong?”
“Nothing at all!” whooped Mac. “We’ve got them all – and then some!”
“Who else is coming along?”
“Alivia Anders is hitching a lift with Sanzari -”
“Doesn’t she ever travel alone? That’s got to be some sort of phobia.”
“Elle? Wasn’t she assigned to the Presidential Protective Unit?”
Mantchev said, “Secret Service? You managed to drag a Secret Service agent into this? Okay, you can color me impressed.”
Montana chuckled. “That’s got to piss Talbott off – you have any idea how long it took to get her embedded there? Wait – how did she find out?”
Slapping her forehead, Montana said, “Oh, yeah. They’re dating, aren’t they?”
“Married. And divorced. Still friends, though.”
“Married?! When did that – never mind, irrelevant. Okay, so that gives us, how many?”
“Eleven, plus you and me. Thirteen.” Mac paled. “Cris? I’m not superstitious or anything but don’t bad things happen when the number thirteen comes up, can’t we find someone else to be our lucky number fourteen it would just make me feel better I think if we could -”
“I’m in.” Lisa’s voice was somewhat fear-filled, and hesitant, but firm.
“Lisa, you don’t have to.”
“I do,” she disagreed. “She’s my friend.”
Montana didn’t argue. “You’re our lucky fourteenth then. You’re in charge of getting us inside HLC; you know the security procedures, what really happens as opposed to what we can find in their manuals. That work for you? Being a burglar?”
“I think I can manage.”