Episode 4

“Libretta, what is your current situation?”

“Dammit,” Lori muttered to herself.  She hated when they wanted an immediate report after the action stopped.  She stood up from a crouch, a long knife clutched in each fist.  Blood and gore coated the walls and floor of the ancient retirement home, and pieces of her victims lay scattered about her.

Some were still groaning in agony.

“I have eliminated the Flesh Minion cult, and neutralized their Prophet.  Situation is in hand.  I need a cleanup team to get in here immediately to completely isolate and remove the contamination.”

“The team is already inbound with an ETA of 2 minutes.  Go ahead and abandon the flashpoint and get to your safe-house.  There is a new briefing waiting for you.”

A new briefing so soon after such a violent action was unusual.  She hadn’t utilized Phase mode when dealing with the Flesh Minions, and had spent less than a minute in Tactical mode; she wouldn’t need to visit Rehab, which did make her available for most other tasks.  Such was the life of a K-Trooper.  The urgency was obvious, so Lori exited through a back door, the residents of the home watching her leave from behind half-closed blinds.  Their descriptions to the police an hour later would vary so wildly and dramatically that the authorities would have no accurate picture of her.  She disappeared into the foggy night, running at an inhuman speed.

*         *         *         *

“Alright, Handler, I am ready for the briefing.”  Lori had made the Handler wait while she cleaned herself up from her assault on the Flesh Minion cult.  “Cleaning up” in this case meant washing various bits of gore off and changing into a fresh, non-bloodied, set of clothes.  It was less a luxury and more a necessity.  Lori wasn’t normally one to wade through a sea of blood, but in the case of Flesh Minions she was willing to make an exception.

Flesh Minions were the willing physical vessels of alien intelligences from some other reality.  The exact nature of this other realm was unknown, but word among the K-Troopers had it that it had something to do with Phase.  Lori was inclined to believe that theory.  Whatever their origin, though, the Flesh Minions were a morbid and creepy lot.  They tended to exhibit bizarre behaviors revolving around cannibalism and extreme body modification.  The degree of self-mutilation this particular cult was into was beyond anything Lori could fathom, and she was glad to be done with them.  She could not imagine what could drive people to embrace the horrific things this cult was engaged in.

“Libretta, we have a dire situation on our hands in your neck of the woods.  One of our K-Troopers has been compromised and taken prisoner by a previously unknown organization.  We need you to go in and extract him, with the secondary mission of gathering data as you can.”

An agent compromise was serious business to the Conspiracy, as agents were the technological result of a convergence of various technologies that were unknown to the rest of the world.  The enhancement and hallucinatory chemicals stored in their distribution pumps alone were worth significant fortunes.  The precise network of the neural nano-delivery system was far in advance of anything else out there in concept and implementation. Taken together this gave the average K-Trooper enough speed and power to effectively take on a platoon of Marines and have a reasonable expectation of winning.  There were lots of governments, companies, and radical groups out there that would give anything for this technology.  Lori cleaned her knife blades as she considered the ramifications of a K-Trooper being captured.

“I understand, Handler. What information do we have on these people?”

There was a pause on the other end.  “What we appear to have, Libretta, is another organization with parallel origin to our own in in the old ARPA labs.  As near as we have managed to work out since last night, the founders of the faction we are now calling Arbitrary Factor worked in a sister lab on computer network systems.  Apparently they discovered a lot of the same… truths that the Ketamine Conspiracy’s founders stumbled across, namely the existence of Phase.  We always wondered if such an animal existed, so it looks like we have our answer on that.  They dropped off of everybody’s radar pretty quickly, and only just resurfaced as a social construct similar to us in modus operandi, if not in organization and motive.”

“How did we come across them?” Lori interrupted as she pulled her copper colored hair back into a pony-tail.  If AF was similar to the Conspiracy on any level, they must have only been found because they wanted to be.

“They set up an event flag by having one of their agents publicly commit suicide at a Transhumanist conference in Pasadena a couple of years ago.  This same agent popped up on our systems just recently, so we dispatched Tiburon to investigate.”

Tiburon.  The man was fast becoming a legend with the K-Trooper ranks.  He was known for his ability to deal out horrifically precise, yet high volume, violence.  He was even better known for his lack of obvious psychiatric issues.  Every K-Trooper was already a killer of some sort before being recruited by the Conspiracy.  Their training and modification was a brutal process that took already mentally broken people and turning them into even more efficient killers.  There were more than a few certified sociopaths serving in the Conspiracy’s ranks.  Even Lori had her… issues.  She shrugged.  “Smells like a trap to me.  Tiburon would seem like a natural choice for this one.”

“We thought so, too, and while we were ultimately proven right about the trap, we realize now that Tiburon might not have been the best choice after all.  We lost our connection with him just after he established contact with the AF agent, and our recovery team found only a trashed and empty apartment upon their arrival.  We caught a lucky break, however, and Tiburon’s systems triggers were put in his hands before communications was severed.  He’s been dropping tagging pheromones from that point on, probably automatically, so Overwatch was able to track them to a house in Ontario.  We need you to recover him.  Barring that, we need you to recover his systems.”

Lori shuddered at the thought, but it was in K-Trooper training to recover lost hardware at any cost.  More than once this meant forcibly removing the pump system from inside the unfortunate’s ribcage, as well as retrieving the decapitated head.  The gruesome lengths the Conspiracy demanded its agents go to in order to maintain the secrecy were well beyond what the average human could withstand.  The conspiracy had a way of turning all of its agents into something of a psychotic.  “I understand, Handler.  Does Overwatch have anything to say about the house?”

“That is what’s unusual about this.  There just hasn’t been any Phase activity whatsoever, which makes Overwatch nervous.  They should have picked up something stemming from Tiburon’s tagging pheromones, but either both he and his hardware was completely destroyed at some point after reaching the house, or…”

“… or Arbitrary Factor can conceal themselves from Overwatch’s prescience,” Libretta finished.  “That would be unnerving.”

“Indeed.  So your mission is as follows: You are to recover Tiburon first, or at least his hardware.  If possible we need you to recon Arbitrary Factor, and if given the opportunity we need you to obtain samples of their technology.  We may be able to do something with it.”

Nibbling her lip thoughtfully, Lori made an observation.  “We have to assume that AF made this move as a final push of some long term planning.  They have to believe that whatever they get out of Tiburon will attain some final goal for them; otherwise they never would have revealed themselves after all this time spent in secrecy.  I believe that they intend for us to not be a factor in the not-so-distant future.”

There was another long pause on the Handler’s end.  “That isn’t what you need to focus on right now, Libretta.  You need to concentrate your efforts solely on the mission at hand.”

Stifling her irritation on this assertion of authority, Lori nodded.  “Of course, Handler.  I am on my way to the location.”

*         *         *         *

Late afternoon on a weekday was a horrible time to be driving, especially if you were in a hurry.  Lori was in a hurry.  As she made her way slowly through the rush hour migration from downtown out to the more affordable residences of Ontario, CA, she considered what little she knew of this mission.  While the Conspiracy told her what she needed to know about Arbitrary Factor, she had the distinct impression that the Conspiracy left a lot of information out.  While not surprising, she hoped that what they hadn’t mentioned wouldn’t turn out to be a mission-breaker.

Tiburon.  His name was known throughout the ranks of K-Troopers as an utter professional.  The latest rumor was that he actually took out a fellow K-Trooper who had gone off the rails.  Those who had worked with him came away with the feeling that he was more dedicated to his own sense of professionalism than to the Conspiracy.  Lori knew he favored using twin M-1911 .45 ACP pistols.  Most K-Troopers had a preference on weapons, and they always seemed to come in pairs.  She used two long knives, and knew of another who used two fighting sticks.  While not all of them used two weapons, she was beginning to suspect that every K-Trooper was ambidextrous.  Lori had no idea what that implied.

“Incoming!” the Handler shouted in her head, triggering both Alert and Tactical Modes with a brutal abruptness.  As the various chemicals poured into her system, Lori saw the hood of the car buckle upwards, temporarily muffling a powerful explosive force.  She was already pumping the brakes and attempting to steer towards the concrete divider of the freeway as the hood popped loose and slammed back against the windshield, sending a network of cracks across the glass.  A concussion wave pounded against her body through the chassis of the car, temporarily deafening her.  In the passenger side rear view mirror Lori saw the remains of a black smoky contrail from off the side of the busy highway, and another explosion ripped through the trunk of the car, sending it spiraling into a spin across traffic.  Without hesitation Lori abandoned the out of control vehicle through the driver’s side window, tumbling to a sprawl against the divider.  Without thought she sprang to her feet and leaped up over the hood of an oncoming truck.  Her foot touched down on the roof with a heavy thud, and she catapulted herself across towards the opposite lanes, landing just short of an oncoming traffic that had yet to slow for the wreck.

Whipping her knives out, Lori hopped up onto the divider and looked out over the growing pileup.  As glass and metal flew through the air, she scanned for any signs of those who attacked her.  Based on her brief glimpse of the contrail, she suspected she had been taken out by a rocket propelled grenade; probably Russian or Chinese.  Despite her rapid yet thoroughly systematic search for visual signs of her assailants, Lori saw nothing that she could home in on.  It was as though they had vanished, which they may have.

“Libretta, what is your current status?”

“All systems nominal, Handler,” Lori subvocalized.  “I was hit with two RPGs.  I suspect that the attackers were not augmented, at least not for combat.”

“Explain.”

As she set out across the frozen river of broken cars and screaming people, Lori glanced at what was left of her own vehicle.  The first RPG hit dead on right on the engine compartment, immediately disabling the car.  The second had slammed into the trunk, leaving a ragged hole through the car, but no serious structural damage.  “Their first attack hit dead on, but the second was off.  They had to have been aiming at the driver, but somehow managed to hit the rear of the car, indicating a slip-up.  The shooter probably got distracted by the first explosion, meaning he was new to this, and messed up his second shot’s aim.  Someone who was enhanced would not have slipped up like that.”

“Agreed, Libretta.  Any sign of the assailant?”

As she bounced over the outside wall of the interstate, Lori readied her blades.  She searched the area, but found absolutely nothing; not even signs of human passing in the dirt.  “Handler, I retract my previous assessment.  The shooter is definitely enhanced, just not tactically.  Trigger Phase Mode.”

When the hallucinogenic chemicals flooded into her brain, Lori crouched down against the concrete.  Reality distorting and twisting before her eyes, she patiently waited the few seconds it would take for her consciousness to cope with the bizarre shifts.  Once she asserted a harshly disciplined control over her own brain, Lori scanned the area again across multiple mental spectrums.  It didn’t take her long to locate the attackers.

About two hundred yards away from the freeway two men were climbing into a black SUV with blacked out windows.  Odd black smoke seemed to cling to their persons, swirling and twisting in against the backdrop of Phase.  Lying in someone’s front lawn between her and the shooters was the RPG launcher, the heat of the barrel causing steam to rise up from the freshly watered grass.  Lori pushed as hard as she could against the earth, sending her flying through the air at tremendous speed.  She cleared fifty yards on that single leap, knives flashing viciously in the afternoon light.

Warping reality as she bounded over parked cars, Lori slammed into the rear of the fleeing SUV.  Holding a knife in her clenched teeth, she pounded her forehead against the rear window again and again, crashing through on the fourth hit.  She easily slipped out of the way of the bullets punching through the glass and metal of the SUV, and forced her way through into the back of the vehicle.  Crouching down with both knives at the ready, she prepared to pounce on the two assassins in the front seat.

One of the men was twisted around to face her, desperately working to reload his .44 while other tried not to wreck the SUV.  Both men wore strange devices on their heads, with clear blue lenses over their right eyes, and both men were surrounded by mysterious black smog that somehow obscured them from much of Lori’s Phase vision.  She was only able to see the assassins clearly in the physical world, indicating the Phase cloaking system she’d earlier discussed with the Handler.

Before the passenger could chamber a round Lori was on him, her knife slicing neatly through his neck with an almost alarming ease.  She only needed to take one of the men prisoner, and it was not the pistol wielding one’s lucky day.  As blood first sprayed, and then poured all over the cab, Lori back-handed the driver across the face, knocking his head gear into the back of the SUV and him into unconsciousness.

While she took control over the speeding charnel house of a vehicle, Lori sheathed her knives and reported in.  “Handler, situation is under control.  I have one KIA, one captured, and I have control of the vehicle.  I need a rendezvous point to deliver the goods.”

Silence.  The Handler wasn’t responding, even after repeated attempts.  Lori had never experienced a communication outage before now, and with each passing second she became more and more nervous.  She eventually gave up after driving around for an hour with a corpse in the passenger side, a knocked out would-be assassin tossed unceremoniously into the back seat, and her trying to talk to dead air.  She snatched up the men’s hardware, including the mysterious headgear and oddly high-tech belts she discovered them both wearing.  She couldn’t tell, but suspected that the belts were the source of the Phase cloaking effect she’d seen earlier.  Once done collecting what she could from them SUV, she killed the prisoner and lit the vehicle on fire.

Libretta was alone now, and the only thing she could think to do was continue on to the target house.  She smelled a trap within a trap in some sort of convoluted setup by Arbitrary Factor in Ontario, but Ontario was the last known whereabouts of the man who could be her last remaining contact with the Conspiracy.

She stole another car two blocks away and got back on I-10 East, well after the traffic jam had passed.  She was on her way to rescue Tiburon, and maybe the Ketamine Conspiracy.

 

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