Operation High Road, Part I


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Also Featuring

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Scene Title Operation High Road, Part I
Synopsis Hana Gitelman leads Wolfhound into the heart of an Institute facility in the search for a fugitive war criminal.
Date June 17, 2017

A light, drizzling rain fell over the night. Droplets of dew cling to every blade of grass, every pine needle, and roll down the surface of every moss and lichen-speckled rock. Far beyond the lights of cities and civilization, where mountains tumble away from the sprawl, nature has come to rule undisputed.

A lone deer tramps its way through the forest floor, ears flicking and twitching, head rearing up to look through the tall stands of fir trees toward the pale blue glow just beginning to form in the east. Birds are chirping, echoing through the primordial deciduous forest, then scatter to the winds as a massive, dark shape roars over the tops of the trees. The deer startles and leaps off into the woods, crashing through the underbrush.

Tlanuwa is a Cherokee word, and though they did not originate in the Pacific Northwest the iron-feathered bird of their folklore has come to roost there today.

North Cascades National Park

Washington State

PNW Dead Zone

0530 Hours

“Okay folks, we’re approaching target.” Stepping out from the cockpit, First Lieutenant Colette Demsky keeps one hand gripping a metal rung on the wall. Blind eyes survey the filled seats on either side of the cargo hold and the nearly two dozen people seated in front of her in the same black attire, with the same wolf’s-head patches on their shoulders.

“The Major says we’re minutes out from the drop site. Wendigo,” Colette calls out to her team, “we’ll be dropping down at the power station.” She looks to the team assembled to her left, smiling proudly at them. Then, blind eyes flick to the group on the right side of her. “Amarok, you’ll be dropping in from the forest ahead of us.” Then, with a jerk of one thumb over her shoulder, she addresses the two unassigned in the craft — Major Hana Gitelman and Officer Rue Lancaster. “The Major and the rookie will be dropping in last and our bird’ll stay in the sky until we all ready the extraction site with the Commander on comms coordinating.”

Walking through the middle aisle, Colette reaches the back of the jet and cracks a fond smile, reaching out to hit a switch that splits open the cargo bay doors in the back as the Tlanuwa noticeably banks to the left, causing her to sway as she braces herself with a grasp on the vinyl webbing on the walls. Wind rushes in through the back door, the roar of the twin engines whines and howls, and the light of dawn comes spilling into the cabin at the tops of tall fir trees streak past.

«You know what you’ve gotta do,» Lieutenant Demsky affirms, confident in each and every one of them. «Let’s make this fucking world a little safer today.»

Three Days Ago

The Bunker: Wolfhound Command

Rochester, NY

“Our target is the Ross Dam in what’s now the PNW Dead Zone.”

The lights are dimmed in the concrete-walled conference room. Paper dossiers lay out in front of each seat around the table, and a satellite map is displayed on the wall-mounted screen behind the tall and broad-shouldered silhouette of Commander Epstein. With a tablet in one hand, Avi traces a circle on the device and his markups are displayed on the screen behind him. “The structure is a hydroelectric dam built in 1936 and later secretly purchased in 1978 by a shell company called Telestratus Industrial Electronics, a cover for the Company.

The screen switches from an overhead display of the dam to a mosaic of interior corridors, all cramped concrete-walled industrial passageways. “This was the Company’s primary Washington State facility, formerly under the command of one Alfred Balfour, now serving a life sentence in prison for his work with the Company.”

“Balfour was apprehended in July of 2010 after the fall of the Company by this man.” The screen behind Avi switches to display a dark-eyed man with a square jaw and a scowling expression. “Howard LeMay. LeMay was middle-management with the Company, but turned on them to work for the Institute where he served as the Institute’s liaison to the Department of Homeland Security. In 2010 LeMay was promoted to Deputy Director of Homeland Security and was given a seat within the Department of Evolved Affairs. We also have reason to believe LeMay was active within a San Francisco-based satellite office of the Institute.”

Another screen flicks past, photographs of body-bags zippered shut with red biohazard stickers on them. “Based on the testimony from the Albany Trials, LeMay was a decision-maker within the Company and Institute’s biological research divisions. He facilitated the research on the Shanti Virus and had a direct hand in engineering the H5N10 virus that killed thousands.” Epstein flicks the tablet and moves to another screen showing a grainy surveillance photo of a man that looks like LeMay talking to a shorter, older man.

“We have reason to believe that Lemay and elements of the Institute have fled to the Ross Dam facility as a fallback location. Based on the intel we’ve gathered, Lemay has surrounded himself and the Institute staff at the dam with a private army culled from US military personnel who didn’t fight on either side during the Civil War.” A few more slides flick past, satellite images of the dam with sandbags and anti-aircraft defenses following the dam’s curving wall. “Our objective is to cripple the facility and bring LeMay in alive.”

“We have zero margin for error on this one,” Avi notes with a look around the table. “If we get LeMay, this could be it for every last fucking Alphabet-Agency asshole hiding under a rock. Now,” Avi switches slides again. “Let’s go over your team’s individual roles.”

North Cascades National Park

Just Outside Ross Dam

Washington State

PNW Dead Zone

0543 Hours

Majestic Douglas fir trees rise overhead along the rolling mountain slope of the Ross Dam trailhead. Pale gray hints of morning light illuminate a rolling ground fog that clings to the forest floor and billows between the trees. In the distance, the pop and crack of gunfire is a mission underway. While out here on the east side of Ross Lake, the fighting has yet to start.

Major Gitelman and Officer Lancaster will be the last team to be inserted.

Two darkly-dressed silhouettes move between the looming trees, silently treading across a carpet of fallen pine needles as they descend the gradual slope of the hillside toward the lake, toward the sound of gunfire. Squirrels, unaware of their proximity to conflict, scatter up a nearby tree and watch these infiltrators move in the dim light of an overcast dawn.

They will come in from the Ross Dam trail on approach to the power maintenance station.

A blocky concrete building rises up from the lakeside, beyond which the dark surface of Ross Lake spreads out to the curve of the dam where the roar of water is constant. On the other side of the dam, flashes of orange pop in the dark as a firefight continues. Three figures in urban camouflage step out into the brisk summer morning with rifles at the ready, moving down the steps from the maintenance station’s door.

They’ll neutralize the exterior defenses

One of the soldiers lets out a gurgling croak as a throwing-knife finds its way into the side of his neck, sending him down onto his knees, pawing at the blade before crumpling to his side. A second one turns, rifle up and ready and catches another knife in the eye. His scream is a strangled one as he falls backwards, writhing on the ground. The third sweeps around with wide eyes, reaching down for the radio at his side only to let out an agonized scream before dropping to his knees.


Stepping out from the treeline, Officer Lancaster trains her sleek cord-bound firearm on the writhing soldier. It makes no sound, fires no bullets, but the battery pack on her hip hums softly. The soldier, though, experiences agonizing and debilitating pain from the concentrated beam of sound directed from the X-LRAD Banshee. A dark shape slips from behind Lancaster, knife in hand, long legs carrying her in quick stride over to the disabled soldier.

Then, they’ll enter the power maintenance station,

Three corpses lay in a neatly stacked heap in the shadow of the power maintenance station as Lancaster comes from dragging the bodies to join Major Gitelman. With a look at the magnetically-locked door, the key card reader’s light switches from red to green and the lock buzzes and pops open. The pair slip in the doorway, where a set of concrete stairs descends into a dark passageway, power conduits along the right wall humming with electricity.

And head for the underground command center.

Several years ago, Rue Lancaster would have crowed about how flippin’ sweet that little X-LRAD device is. These days, she’s more subdued. An appreciative downtick of the corners of her mouth and a lift of her brows is all the display gets in praise. Well, that’s handy.

With the Major securing them access, Rue lets Hana take point. Heading down the stairs after her with carefully practiced steps. Not a sound. So far, so good. But the real fun is due to begin once they make their way deeper inside. The Banshee is held in her hand, pointed toward the floor, but ready.

Moving ahead of Rue, Hana readies her own Banshee rather than another knife; both weapons have their place. Descending into the subterranean corridor, she reaches up, a reflexive ping that tests the strength of an outside connection through intervening concrete. Signal's solid, is the unnecessary yet inevitable confirmation given in another's voice. Autopilot set for if we drop.

That assurance receives the briefest digital brush of acknowledgment, the affirmation of two minds in accord. Leaving monitoring and communication primarily in other digital hands, Hana focuses her full attention on the environment around them, the very physical tasks immediately ahead. Continuing down shadowed concrete steps, she listens with senses more than the merely physical, reaching for the feel of radios in communication, comparing what she can decipher of distance and direction against the known layout of the station.

«Team Wendigo Inside.» Noa’s voice relayed directly into Hana’s mind and Rue’s earpiece.

Coming down the stairs, there’s an unusual sight in the hallway of the maintenance building. A handful of shell casings lie on the ground, a few feet away there’s pockmarked divots in the concrete walls where bullets impacted. The scent of gunpowder is still fresh in the air, and all Wolves are accounted for. The ground level of the maintenance building contains racks of materials for maintaining the dam, chain-link cages filled with boxes of ammunition, stacks of body armor piled up against another shelf. A bloody boot print smudges across the floor, going toward an open stairwell that descends down to a partway open door.

«Advance at will, but expect company within the minute.» And there’s Lieutenant Allegre.

Outside, there’s a brilliant flash of orange light that blooms through the high windows accompanied by a shuddering explosion that rattles the windows. Amarok is right on cue. But there’s another sound that follows the explosion, a crash of metal and a muffled scream, followed by a pop of gunfire, and another loud crash. The sounds emanate up from the stairwell down to the command center.

Someone else got here first.

This isn’t the scene Rue expected to find. Her grip on her weapon tightens, though she considers retrieving her sidearm instead. Her head ducks instinctively at the flash and the blast that follows, but no more than that when no glass or concrete comes raining down on them.

The sound of gunfire is unexpected, too. The cursing that follows is strictly in her own head, monologue remaining internal. They knew they would more than likely meet with some resistance, but not from outside interference. Rue casts a glance to Hana, not apprehensive so much as waiting for instruction even as she’s already putting one foot in front of the other to carry herself toward the danger.

Hana tilts her head at the sound of gunfire coming from within rather than without, filtering through concrete-bound air, attenuated by distance and doors. It grabs her attention more strongly than the half-expected display outside: gunfire is rarely a good sign. Gunfire from somebody else? Never.

"«We have company,»" is said for others' benefit rather than their own, brusque notice of the inevitable complication thrown into her team's path.

It's too dark in the stairwell to rely on hand signals. "«Flank left. Eyes open.»" the major dictates to Rue alone — distributing the two of them across the corridor to free their lines of fire as much as possible. If it looks like a problem, shoot it goes without saying… particularly while they're armed with Banshees.

This facility is not a mystery to Hana. She had been here on several occasions during her time with the Company, perused its floor plans even more recently. Down the stairs she knows the hallway heads straight for twenty-seven feet, then hits a 4-way junction. Left will lead to water pressure valves and gauges after a brief hall, right will lead to more maintenance pipes and power output gauges. Neither offer any surprising revelations as she makes her way down the hallway, hugging the right wall with Rue to the left.

Another pop, pop, pop steady crack of small arms fire echoes from the corridor ahead. At the end of the hall there’s a partway closed metal security door, one that should have a magnetic keypad lock. But it’s open, forced open, the lock pried off of the wall and the four inch thick metal door bent at the middle as if hit by a hydraulic battering ram. Another single pop of gunfire as Hana and Rue reach the door.

Beyond here is a twenty foot wide and seventeen foot long security prep room. Slipping through the open door, lockers are demolished, dented with heavy impacts. Assault on the floor are bent at a 45-degree angle, shell casings scatter everywhere. There’s four men in urban camouflage lying on the floor, their backs snapped at odd angles. Each has a single bullet hole in their head and two in their chest. At the end of the room, another forced open door. There’s no mistaking it now, someone is ahead of them.

From this might be bad to oh, fuck, it’s worse than I thought. Rue casts a wary glance in Hana’s direction, then looks over the bodies. Who could have done that? Suddenly, she’s feeling woefully out of her depth. Humanis First!, for all their firepower, have always been the less frightening foe for Rue to face. She expects this is more than just gadgets, though.

But they didn’t come all this way to turn around and walk out. To back down. With a steadying breath, eyes up, Rue heads for the door at the end of the room, cautiously, Banshee up and ready.

They traverse lengths of empty space, devoid of defenders and bodies alike. Perhaps surprising; certainly at once both gratifying and concerning. The broken lock, the dented door — those are simply concerning. Hana pauses for half a beat to scrutinize details, then slides through the security door, Rue behind her. The bodies on the floor clinch her suspicions. "«Strength,»" she murmurs to Rue, "«or mimicry.»" Iron, steel, stone; something of that sort would have no problem wreaking this kind of damage.

The Banshee may not affect a mimic — but it may yet be better than ordinary guns. They hashed out those hypotheticals long ago. Hana keeps the sonic weapon in hand, reaches ahead with her ability in hope for advance notice from some count of radios — and leads the way through the second door, alert, wary.

“Ok. And where's the server room?” an unfamiliar voice echoes down the hall past the security armory. Neither Hana nor Rue can see the source yet. “You're running out of limbs.” Up ahead they can see the hall splits into a four-way intersection again. Hana’s schematic shows that the right stairwell leads down to the next level, left goes to a break room, and straight ahead is a security operations room; CCTVs, comms systems, and the like. The voice is coming from in there, behind a partly closed door.

“One— one floor down.” Another voice, this one panicked. “One floor down! I said one— ” something meaty snaps loudly, followed by a soft thump and a wet slap. There are more shell casings between the intersection and the security operations room. Bloodstains, now, but no bodies.

The door at the end of the hall opens, and a man in what looks like a repurposed SWAT uniform steps out cleaning blood off of one hand. He's tall, broad shouldered, clean cut in the way a police officer might be. His flak jacket is pockmarked with two bullet indentations at the chest and he carries himself with a slight limp. Gun at his hip. He doesn't look like the rest of the Institute security.

And he has a deer in the headlights expression as soon as he walks blindly into Hana and Rue’s approach.


Well, that sounded unpleasant. Rue resists the urge to sneak a glance at Hana. It isn’t as though they’re going to turn back. What in the hell is this guy looking for, exactly? They’ll either find out later, or they won’t. They have a job to do now.

Rue steps forward to clear Hana, raises her Banshee with a stony expression and fires the debilitating soundwaves at the unfamiliar man. Whatever he is - whatever he does - she hopes it won’t protect him from this. That he’s wearing body armor gives her some glimmer of hope that she isn’t about to have to scrap with him. But if he is able to withstand the X-LRAD, then Major Gitelman is better equipped to handle whatever comes next. All Lancaster needs to do is buy her time to gauge and react.

Hana has just enough time to get a good look at the unexpected complication before Rue fires on him, sonics sending him to the floor. Narrow as the space is, Hana catches the very edge of the Banshee's effect; she grimaces and sets her feet against the discomfort, keeping her focus on the stranger. Her digital assistant is not so perturbed, and by the time Rue lets up on the Banshee, Hana has — somewhat useful information. Interesting information.

"«Keep alert on the doors,»" is sent to Rue's earpiece as Hana holsters her own Banshee and steps towards the man on the ground, the better to relieve him of his gun. "James Dearing," she remarks, as much for Rue's benefit as to (potentially) hold that knowing over the man who is otherwise a stranger. "Bounty hunter, former LAPD." Her last remark — "Are we going to have a problem?" — is directed at him alone.

Sprawled out on the floor, hands on both sides of his head, Dearing is wholly incapable of forming a conscious thought in the time it takes for his mind to recover from the effects of the Banshee. He looks up blearily at the weapon Rue has pointed at him, to the cord going from grip to the battery pack on her belt. His brows furrow, mouth opens, and the ringing sensation in his ears dulls to a tinnitus hum surprisingly quickly.

He sees the patch on Rue’s shoulder, recognizes it immediately. “Probably?” Dearing admits, but it isn’t because of the reasons Hana may have intended. He has both his hands up, palms out, eyes fixed on the gun Hana had relieved from him. But from the downstairs, Hana and Rue can both hear the sounds of multiple booted feet drawing closer.

In the between, Rue and Hana both hear Francois’ voice over the comms. «Wendigo, an ETA, s'il vous plaît?»

“Because I saw— nnh— six men with automatic weapons— ” Dearing exhales that breathlessly, “coming this way— on the cameras.” One finger extends to point back into the room he came in from. He swallows audibly. “So yeah. Problems.” For everyone.

The response is worrisome. «Working on it!» Demsky’s voice crackles. «We ran into some resistance! Hunter robots and security! Give us a couple minutes!»

Rue’s expression remains passive as she slides the Banshee into its holster. Behind her eyes, her mind is screaming. Three seconds of panic she allows herself before kicking things back into gear. Six men. Automatic weapons. There are worse odds. If she were alone, she’d be retreating. But she has Gitelman.

And then there’s this asshole.

Dearing is stared at with an accusing expression, like it might be his fault that they’ve got incoming. Well, it might be, actually. They were doing things quietly. He clearly wasn’t. It sounds like the others are up against similar obstacles (if she only knew) and that apprehension coils in her stomach. “Major?” Orders?

Cameras. Hana takes a step past Dearing, glances in the door; she catches only the tail end of a figure on screen, but comparing the layout of the monitors to her knowledge of the facility suggests where they are: down. Of course.

"I expected them," she tells Dearing, turning back. Reversing her grip on his gun, Hana holds it out to him. "Work with us, and I'll give you a cut," she offers, expression neutral, gaze intent. There is no negotiating on this offer; it's very emphatically a case of take it or leave it.

In the wake of that exchange, the analyst thinks very quickly.

"Take the door off its hinges," she tells the man who almost certainly has a strength ability, instructions terse and rapid. "Let 'em file up the stairs." Up to six men, long guns, confined space. Not good for them. "I'll sweep with the Banshee, drop to pick off the rear." Her gaze flicks to Rue. "You two tag-team the top." Sonics to keep them suppressed, whatever Dearing chooses for the kill; Hana and Rue both have backup weapons if it comes to that.

There are a number of potential complications, as with any plan, but at the very least she figures they should be able to even their odds.

Tongue pressed against the inside of his cheek, Dearing looks from Rue to Hana, then rubs a hand at his right ear and works his jaw open and closed. He eyes the Banshee on Rue’s hip, then nods curtly to the woman who somehow knew exactly who he was. There’s a momentary wariness in that, like an ambush predator who has their hiding-spot revealed. He waits one more beat before pulling himself to his feet. “Deal.” Dearing admits as he takes his sidearm back.

Knowing there’s little time to move, Dearing holsters his gun and crosses to the door at the top of the stairs the security will be coming from and does exactly what Hana had asked. He pulls it open, then grabs the side of the door and wrenches it off of the wall with splitting hinges and a shower of clattering screws hitting the concrete floor. He turns the door sideways, folds it like a piece of cardboard and carries it at his side like an empty pizza box.

Dearing backs out of the short hall that leads to the stairs, rounding the same corner Rue positions herself at to be ready to ambush from. He unholsters his handgun, folded door in the other hand. “Red,” he offers at her back, “when they get up here, take a knee.” He looks over her shoulder to Hana, voice quiet and conversational. “You go low, I go high.” One brow raises, his plans have considerably less finesse than Hana’s.

Finesse. There isn't really, just a lot of bad options, and one chokepoint that might give them enough of an advantage to turn the tide. Hana nods to Dearing as he accepts the deal, watches as he pries off the door, as he withdraws to wait with Rue. Once the passage is clear, she moves forward, right shoulder against the wall, Banshee at ready. She stops, considers the tiny slice of the stairwell she can see, takes another half-step forward and crouches low. When she gets a glimpse of a head there, it'll be time to move.

Bring a button next time, says a voice only she can hear. Hana ignores it; the helpful advice isn't helpful right now.

When Dearing takes the door off its hinges, Rue watches with a passive expression. She also makes a note to herself not to get into a fistfight with the man if she can help it ever. Hopefully he’s sincere about accepting Hana’s offer. He won’t like what happens if he goes back on it.

She looks at him out of the corner of her eye. Red. “Got it.” Sounds a lot like fine, but it’s a sound enough direction. Rue pops the snap that holds her gun in place. A deep inhale, slow exhale, she listens to the sound of boots thundering in the stairwell and sinks down to one knee on the floor, weapon raised and ready.

The sounds of boots coming up the stairs get louder and louder. Dearing, still shaking off the ringing from the Banshee, steadies himself as he keeps his sights trained over Rue’s shoulder. The first sight of security personnel flits up the stairs and immediately Hana sees that they've come loaded for bear.

The officer in the front is ducked behind a five foot tall matte black riot shield with a view-slat in the front. The officer behind him has an assault rifle barrel tucked around the side of the shield in what makes for almost a phalanx. The next three have rifles trained up and around at subtly different angles, trying to check their corners and sight-lines, but the stairwell is making it nearly impossible. The rear guard also has a shield, though it isn't raised and he's creeping sideways up the stairs at a slower pace, looking nervous.

Two more steps. One. There.

Hana listens as six pairs of boots tromp up the stairs, cautiously but steadily. Waits without thinking about who, when, where; just waits for the cue she's set in mind. When that motion enters her view, she reacts promptly — stepping forward swiftly, leading with the Banshee, sweeping its beam down the officers approaching up the nearer flight of stairs. Another step to the rail, sonic beam striking the rest of the file — and then Hana slides herself under the railing, left hand clinging to it for just a moment before letting herself drop.

She might regret that later. Or maybe not; acceptable consequences are part and parcel of Hana's worldview.

Hana lands on her feet at the bottom landing, but doesn't stay there; she crumples with a sound that tries not to be a strangled yelp, dropping to knee and outstretched hand. Her other hand still has firm grip on the Banshee, though, and she has the presence of mind to raise it on the back half of the file — if mostly because disabling them is her sole objective in this moment, ensuring Rue and Dearing have free rein up above.

Rue stares down the sights of her gun, takes a deep breath and holds it as if she were preparing a shot with her rifle. Around her, the world seems to go quiet, slow down. A matter of perception. Hana makes that first sweep with her X-LRAD. She leans out from behind her cover, and as soon as that shield dips, Lancaster’s finger squeezes the trigger.

Everything snaps into motion again. It’s all Rue can do to keep from crying out in concern when the Major disappears from view and she doesn’t hear just the expected sound of boots hitting the floor. Her jaw sets and she fires a second time. A third.

Ultimately, the shields do nothing. The lead and rear security officers let out equally agonized screams and drop onto their backs, shields clattering to the ground. The four others sandwiched between the shield bearers likewise slam into the walls and drop their weapons, clutching at their heads.

Dearing steps out behind Rue, and makes it abundantly clear why he wanted her to duck. He hurls the folded door like a discus, and it collides with the second and third guard in the column with a resounding clang, sending both crumpling backwards with scores of broken bones. But just like Lancaster, Dearing isn't taking any prisoners, and when he raises his sidearm he's firing down into the stunned men past those Rue already shot, executing the next three in sight with the six remaining bullets in his clip. He drops the magazine, slaps in another. Only one security officer, the one closest to Hana and writhing on the ground, remains.

Then the lights flicker, once.

«Power is down! Wendigo mission complete!» Colette’s voice over the comms, the auxiliary power to the turrets at the extraction site has been cut. «No sign of LeMay. Anyone need backup or should we hold?»

Then the light flickers again as a thunderous explosion shakes the entire complex, unsettling dust from the ceiling. Amarok.

There's a great deal of clamor from just up the stairs, clamor of a sort that tells Hana her comrades-in-arms have the problem well in hand — namely, none of it is automatic weapons fire. In the quiet between Dearing's last shot and the replacement of his magazine, Hana glances upward, sees an absence of standing soldiers. Straightening, she holsters the Banshee and draws out her backup weapon, firing three shots center-of-mass into the downed rearguard.

Then Hana puts that gun away too, and turns her attention to getting herself upright. One hand braced against the stairs, she keeps her weight off her left foot as best she can for the moment. "«Tlanuwa, situation under control,»" she sends in response to Colette's query. It is, for now; and if that changes, well, they may or may not have backup then. "«En route to command center.»"

As the complex rattles, Hana slowly tests her ankle; it still bends like it should. She eases her weight onto it, calibrating her expectations for the degree of pain. There's still a mission to finish, and the technopath needs to be there. "Let's go," the major calls up the stairs as she readies the Banshee again, checks the state of its charge, and moves for the exit.

Pushing herself to her feet, Rue holsters her weapon and makes her way to the stairwell with long strides. Halfway down, she stoops in a fluid movement to scoop up one of the automatic weapons from the downed soldiers, and a second. She holds one out toward Dearing, looking over her shoulder at him, brows lifted. Want it? Could come in handy.

Whether he chooses to use it or discard it is up to him. They aren’t exactly quiet at this point, with the explosions above rocking the building. Rue would rather have the firepower on her side in case of further unexpected surprises. Boots sounding softly on the floor, she hurries to catch up to the major. She doesn’t ask if she’s all right, just nods once.

Holstering his sidearm, Dearing takes the rifle in one hand and checks down the sights, then pulls out the magazine and examines how many rounds are left — not a shot fired — before slapping it back into place. As they hurry down the stairs, past the dead and dying, Dearing offers a wordless look to Hana. Not far below them, the stairwell ends at an open door that spills out into a large, open space filled with rows of desks and computers that could house roughly 200 employees. There’s no partitions between the desks, and yet it still somehow manages to feel like a cubicle farm. The computers haven’t been used in a few years from the dust settled on the desks. This wasn’t what the Company used this space for.

None of the computers appear to have power running to them, nor do they have wireless access of any kind. The fear of someone like Hana Gitelman has informed these choices. From this open floor there’s several other doorways that lead deeper into the complex, one of which has an acrid, black smoke billowing out of it and tracking across the ceiling in rolling waves. Other doorways lead into offices, hallways, conference rooms.

Distant, muffled cursing fills the air from the source of the smoke. According to the blueprints from the old Company archive, that direction would lead to a server cluster. Odds are someone is trying to destroy records or information.

Hana returns Dearing's look with an inscrutable one of her own as they venture out into what used to be a significant workspace. The technopath gives the desks she passes by only the briefest of glances; equipment untouched for as long as is plainly the case here is not worth the distraction. Not when there's clearly evident sabotage going on at their main goal up ahead.

"Close quarters," the major states as they approach. "Lancaster, point. Disable and contain." The sonic weapon is much less likely to harm the equipment. "Dearing, back her up. Don't damage the computers," the major reminds both.

At least, not any more than has already been done.

For her part, mindful of the expected tight space and the injury that makes her less suited to charging in, Hana lays claim to Rue's rifle and falls back a couple of steps, alert on the doors they pass by for any other complications that might emerge.

What must this place have looked like when it was in full swing, Rue wonders. It must have been impressive. One gloved finger trails over the surface of a desk as she passes, silently observing the accumulation of dust with a quirk of her lopsided mouth. The heyday was quite some time ago.

The orders are acknowledged with a nod from the younger woman. The rifle is passed to the major without hesitation, the Banshee retrieved instead. It’s not often that Rue has to look up to meet someone’s eyes - even a man’s. She lifts her chin slightly and looks at Dearing appraisingly. So far, he’s been playing by the rules. And she has to admit, he’s not bad to have at her back. Again, she nods and wordlessly signals for him to follow as she makes her way toward the server room.

The server room is large, but the racks of computer equipment make for a tight space with narrow walking paths between tall metal racks lined with what are now burning pieces of equipment. There is a glowing white-hot line of molten fire running from top to bottom through the stacks of servers, pooling on the floor with a sizzling crackle. Hana will recognize them as magnesium kill switches, a Company-designed failsafe to destroy data in the event of a breach, that drops a thermite charge onto the hardware.

The room is filled with acrid, black smoke that stings the eyes and makes mucus membranes water. Dearing raises an arm and tucks his face into his elbow, looking at Rue with narrowed eyes. There’s a frustration in his expression, too, but the clatter and curse of someone still in that room has Dearing nodding. There’s three aisles in the server room, and whoever is still in there is somewhere in the back. Dearing motions with the barrel of his rifle to the right, then raises a brow and motions to the far left. It leaves the middle path open. Brows raise again, get it?

It’s like a fox hunt. They flush whoever it is out, if they don’t catch him outright, by leaving an opening. But Dearing isn’t in charge. He waits, understanding his precarious place in the chain of command.

Nothing and no one comes out of the shadows, the doors, the corridors they pass by. Hana doesn't exactly relax when they reach the server room, but she has been able to check off many potential considerations, leaving just one to receive focused attention. She slings the rifle over her shoulder and looks on through the door as Dearing plans a pincer attack — though his gestures to Rue are noticed only in periphery while Hana contemplates the smoke.

What's already burning is as good as gone… but not everything is burning. Which, yes, does mean there's someone still there.

Readying the Banshee once again, Hana eases back several steps, takes up a position oblique to the doorway. She won't be seen by anyone who comes rushing down that middle aisle, not until they're almost upon the door — and she has plenty of room to react in, herself. Just in case that pincer attack doesn't quite catch their game… or there's more 'game' than the two inside expect.

Freckled nose scrunches at the smell of the burning equipment, but it’s no more than a momentary annoyance. The smoke? That’s a bigger issue. Rue likewise brings her arm up to shield herself from the worst of it and catches Dearing’s look. Follows the motions of his rifle and smirks behind her arm. If her eyes weren’t watering, he might be able to tell it. Like he read her mind.

Rue nods her head and creeps swiftly toward the left aisle. She holds her Banshee ready, and at the corner she pauses to take one deep breath, and lowers her other arm. Then she pivots on her heel to step out and face whatever’s waiting in the back of the room. Hopefully just the target they came here for, but if there’s more, well… Then it’s a party.

Dearing and Rue split up into the choking, smoke-filled room. Sparks and sizzling streams of thermite create an ambience of electrical sputtering and burning that underlines the cursing coming from the back end of the server room. The overhead lights are flickering, some bulbs out, others burning too bright from a power surge. Rue sweeps down an empty corridor, with a concrete wall to her right, high ventilation ducts near the ceiling, all fans turned off. To her right, racks and racks of smoking servers and glowing streams of liquid fire.

She loses sight of Dearing almost immediately, and as she comes to the corner at the end of the corridor, she can hear someone just around the bend. There’s a clank, a click, and Rue sweeps out from the corner and comes face to face with a tall and broad-shouldered man with a streak of black across his brow, standing on a step ladder trying to reach an aluminum pin on a thermite detonation device for the rear server rack.

He stares at Rue, brown eyes wide. She’s seen his face before in a dossier.

It’s Howard LeMay.

The urge to grin is strong, but Rue’s face remains stony as she lifts her weapon and holds down the trigger just long enough to disorient him. Then, she moves forward, hooks her foot through the bottom rung of the step ladder and pulls it off balance to unsteady him the rest of the way and make sure he falls.

Surprise, bitch.

No orders. No chance to comply. No chance to attack. The X-LRAD is fired at him again for good measure, and to give her the moment of safety to look up to try and spot Dearing through the smoke.

Hana listens, watches, waits. There's a clatter from within the server room, one not immediately followed by audible gunshots, running feet, or anything else that suggests quarry headed her way. Banshee held at the ready, the major moves forward from where she's waiting — and falters at the first step, because she'd not been putting weight on her injured ankle. The second step is… smoother, at least. The third brings her within the door, grimacing at the acrid smoke.

Her impression is that they now control the room, but it falls to those actually doing the clearing to confirm.

A scream comes from Dearing’s side of the server room, and through the smoke along the north corridor that connects the three hallways a person comes sailing through the air. He hits the ground on his back, sliding across the concrete to land beside where Howard LeMay clutches his head and groans against the agonizing pain of the Banshee.

Rue doesn't recognize the dark-haired man in the leather jacket, wincing and leaning away from the Banshee wall. Curiously, this man is handcuffed and is trying to raise his hands in a vaguely surrender-ish gesture. Dearing comes out of the smoke cloud, assault rifle in one hand, angled down at the man on the floor who isn't Howard LeMay.

“We’re clear,” Dearing calls out, giving Hana the additional confirmation to move forward. LeMay is incapacitated, but the other figure looks more baffled than anything else. “Found this shit hiding in a supply closet.” Dearing presses the barrel of his assault rifle against the man’s side.

Hana recognizes him instantly on arrival. A long absent figure now come slithering out of the shadows.

Colin Verse.

“Can— we talk about this?” Colin stammers, handcuffed wrists and palms angled toward Dearing. “Because you're obviously from the outside and— I’d really like to— ”

Shut it.” Dearing jabs the barrel harder into Colin’s side, and the technopath recoils, grimacing and making a placating gesture with both hands. Dearing looks down to LeMay, then over to the smoldering servers, two thirds of which are destroyed. But that's a third of the data that is salvageable, can be combed through.

Confirmation given — although with a surprise addition to the tableau — Hana lowers her weapon and steps forward. She casts a satisfied glance at LeMay, but it's Colin Verse she halts in front of, tipping her head and studying him like the curiosity he is. At last, Hana holsters the Banshee and nods to both Rue and Dearing. There's an accolade in the gesture, a simple well done.

The gaze she returns to Colin is intent, pensive, calculating. "Later," she says, brusque but uninflected; yes, they'll talk. But for now — for now, Hana has only one question. One question that will determine the form that later talk takes. "What do I need to watch out for?"

She takes as given that Verse recognizes her; he has plenty of reason to, by her estimation.

Red brows hike up when another body hits the floor by her prisoner. An unknown to her. Maybe a bonus for them. Blue gaze lifts back to Dearing and she tips her head to one side with a thoughtful frown and a half shrug. Okay, not bad.

Rue lets off the Banshee, but doesn’t holster the weapon, in case anyone decides they think they’re smart here. She expects LeMay is too self-preserving for that. Most cockroaches are. A smile is suppressed in the face of the major’s praise. The hint of mirth is gone from her eyes when she looks down at LeMay and listens patiently to the conversation unfolding.

Wide eyed and still agonized from the Banshee, LeMay stares up at Hana and then looks over to Colin as she asks him a pointed and clear question. “Wha — well — well it's — ”

“Verse you piece of shit! Don't— ” Dearing puts a boot down on LeMay’s chest, eliciting a gasping cry from the older man. He looks up at Rue, to the Banshee, then down to the boot on his chest and grows silent. Colin, still holding his hands up, shifts a look back to Hana.

“It's ah— hah— it's just got a distributed data intrusion countermeasure, it'll try to overload you with junk data while it— uh— while it pings your location. That's why he was pulling the failsafe.” Because LeMay knew that can't keep Hana out. Verse keeps his hands up, and LeMay tries to speak again.

“You're making the wrong choice, again, Gitelman. We aaaagh!” Dearing presses his heel down into LeMay’s ribs with an audible pop. He says nothing, just watches LeMay squirm.

LeMay's interjection — and his suppression by Dearing — elicit nothing from Hana, not even so much as a glance. She remains focused on Colin, nodding just once in the silence that follows. Looking to Rue, Hana sets the rifle aside where it's in her easy reach… though not that of their prisoners. "Keep them contained, mind the door," she says, flicking a glance to Dearing. "Maybe don't break our bounty too much," has a dry cast that hints at the very edges of humor.

Moving forward with a stifled wince, Hana pulls two USB fobs from a pocket and crosses to the nearest of the undamaged servers. A quick-as-thought digital exchange provides distraction from reignited pain, the roughest of plans for division of labor if Verse's information is correct — and for if it is not.

Then Wireless plugs the peripherals in and reaches for the system beyond.

There’s the briefest wince and a flash of anger that appears on Rue’s face when Dearing steps in. (Quite literally.) So far, she hasn’t been ungrateful for his help, but this is not his show, as far as she’s concerned. But it’s important to maintain a unified front. Bickering is the fastest way to give the enemy an opening.

And besides, it isn’t her show either.

Part of her wants to know what LeMay had to say. But that’s never a good idea either. People will say whatever they think you want to hear to save their own skin. Putting her Banshee back in its holster at her side, she reaches to pick up the rifle instead. Rue looks between the three men in front of her, expression passive. When she catches Dearing’s eye, she lifts her chin slightly.

LeMay remains silent on the floor, eyes shut and teeth clenched. Dearing flicks one brow up and eases back on LeMay, but keeps his rifle pointed down at him. “I was here for this one,” Dearing motions to Verse. “Government contract,” he eyes LeMay, then Rue. “What a happy accident.”

Inside the remaining network infrastructure, Hana visualized the data as massive clusters of lights with gray and black regions like dead brain cells. The attempted bombardment comes, an intrusion detected and defended with. By an assault of garbage data that could deter a lesser technopath, one without a subprocessor to handle these distractions.

Through the security countermeasure, Hana can see what remains of the data is archival Institute records on projects dating back to the mid 1990s, many are partial records involving the construction of the Ark, the Mallett Device and the Mount Natazhat facility, a project called Looking Glass, and smoking gun research evidence on clinical drug trials, proof of the carcinogen quality of Adynomine and negation gas. There's personnel records, troves of them, information on H5N10 research. It's a gold mine, though none of it has been updated since November 7, 2011.

From within data space, Hana cannot readily respond to Dearing — though she heard, in the moment before diving into the computers. Makes a mental note to ask for details later.

Here and now, she orients herself in the digital environment, finds nothing more than Colin warned of… and a myriad of information still worth extracting, despite damage done to the cluster. Her first order of business is to disable the countermeasure, freeing up the whole of her resources for the stealing of data. Personnel records are of interest to Wolfhound, potentially more names for their list; I have those, Tenzin pings, reaching out to examine files and their associations, attempting to pull from the most senior positions down, and particularly names they don't already know.

To Hana is left the harder decisions. She leaves for 'later' the things that are old news, pulling data relating to negation drugs… a part of her attention drawn to something distinctly new. Looking Glass.

Almost sounds innocuous, but she doesn't have the slightest bit of faith in that. Hana yanks those files, too.

Rue’s own brows lift in response to Dearing’s information. That’s interesting to note. Verse looks like a small fish to her, but they always do. Anybody who looks like they should have been locked up a long time ago already is. Nobody survives on the run long by looking conspicuous.

Blue eyes watch LeMay without any apparent interest, but she’s watching him breathe. Broken ribs can be a problem, and the last thing they need is to have to triage a punctured lung. She resists the urge to scowl at Dearing and bites the inside of her lip instead. She has nothing to say to anybody in this room except Major Gitelman, and that’s only if she’s called upon.

«Charges set.» Claire Bennet’s voice crackles over the comms, Amarok is almost done mopping up the security, ahead of schedule for extraction. Dearing steps off of LeMay now that Rue has him in her sights. He bends down and hauls up Verse by the scruff of his shirt.

“Looks like we both got what we came here for,” Dearing notes as he slants a look down at LeMay. He contemplates something, gears turning behind his eyes. A moment later Dearing’s focus is on Hana, as she seems outwardly to be the one in charge.

“Bounty on Verse is three million.” Architect of the DoEA’s hunter robot program, creator of a backdoor into the US Missile defense system for the Institute. Colin Verse has a scroll of deeds yet to be answered for. Dearing’s quote of Colin’s value elicits a look from the man himself who mouths a silent wow and actually seems quite thrilled that he's that valuable, all things considered. Dearing isn't paying attention to that, however. He has his sights on Hana. “I'd rather not squabble over who caught who here, because I at least can see I’m outgunned. So,” Dearing lifts Colin off of his feet by his shirt, holding him out to Hana.

“I've heard about you all for a while. I dunno if you're Nambiza or not, but I'd be willing to split the difference on Mr. Verse in exchange for,” Dearing shrugs. “A job interview?”

The timing of the request seems to be based on conclusions of the operation. Dearing doesn't give the impression he personally would like to stick around otherwise. “One time offer,” Dearing quips with perhaps an over-inflated sense of confidence.

Dearing is talking again; the not-yet-familiar voice snags her attention. Hana takes a moment to queue up another set of file transfers — the rest of the negation drug info, followed by the H5N10 data, and the Mallett Device after — before opening her eyes and glancing over to Dearing. To the unfortunate soul being held up off the floor. "I'd like to talk to the man a bit myself," she remarks, an offhanded statement that puts no particular importance on that talk.

It's not even subterfuge; she'd like to talk to Verse, since he's here. She doesn't need to.

Turning to face the bounty hunter, Hana gives him a slow, contemplative look-over. The declaration of one-time offer appears to leave her completely unmoved. In actuality, it makes her even slower to put forward a reply. "I think you've had half an interview already," she allows at last. "Don't see a reason not to finish it out."

Her gaze flicks to the door. "Amarok reports charges set," she says for Dearing's benefit. "I'll be done shortly" is more generally directed. "You can go ahead and start moving them out," the major concludes, glancing significantly to Verse and LeMay.

Personnel files collected for later perusal, she and Tenzin both turn their attention to what's left.

Three million gets a lift of Rue’s brows, an appreciative expression. That’s pretty impressive, considering he doesn’t look like much to her. She waits a moment to make sure Dearing’s covering her before she crouches down on the floor beside LeMay, her rifle having been set aside. An arm under his shoulders, she gets him sat up before hauling him to his feet. Scooping her weapon back up, she points it at him, then motions toward the exit.

He’s not gonna be able to run too fast if he decides to try and take off. Not faster than her rifle can fire anyway. She doesn’t expect he’s going to give her any trouble. Dearing, on the other hand, gets a wary glance. So far he seems genuine, and he knows they’ve got friends topside, but she’s seen people pull stupider stunts. She gestures for him to go on ahead with Verse. She’d rather not have him at her back.

As Dearing marches Verse out of the server room and back through the acrid smoke, Rue follows suit with a limping LeMay, hands folded atop his head. The man responsible for ordering the creation of the H5N10 virus, the man who betrayed the Company, the man who sat for years as an Institute mole in DHS has finally been caught. The victory today is a resounding one.

Hana, last to leave the room, finished extracting the data from the surviving servers. There'll be questions about what was recovered, the Praeger administration will want copies of the data, there'll be hours, weeks, and months spent analyzing it. But for now the foxes have been smoked out of their dens.

«Extraction site is clear,» Epstein’s voice crackles over the comms. «Amarok and Wendigo are en-route. Coming in for pickup.»

A lesser group wouldn't have done what they did here today, wouldn't have pulled together resources or skills with fine enough precision to avoid a single measurable casualty. Not even the Ferrymen could have done this, at the height of their influence. Not this cleanly.

Though the stabbing ache in Hana’s ankle is a reminder of how even small casualties can add up, today is a success in the purest form of the word. After years of struggle, a victory like this feels rewarding. As if perhaps it does get easier after a point.

In that deceptive comfort, lies the challenges of the future.

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