“Tiburon, do you read me?”
Silence. A dim white noise static that pervades everything; inescapable.
“Tiburon, we’ve located your signal. Do you read me?”
A tinny voice breaching the barriers of numbness, and sounds that reminded one of words. The noise was fluid in shape, and flowed through one’s mind with an almost soothing rhythm.
“Tiburon, this is your temporary Handler. Do you read me?”
Josh shook his head, scraping his scalp on the rough concrete ground. His body reacting with inhuman reflex, the previously unconscious K-Trooper pushed himself up and into a crouch. He held up a pair of pistols and tried to sight in on anything in the darkness. He didn’t have access to any of the enhancement modes at the moment and had to make do with his natural abilities; at least these were very capable.
“Tiburon, we read you as mobile and aware. Please respond.”
“Shut up.” Josh quickly regained his senses and was waiting for his pump to finish rebooting. The things were complex and extremely miniaturized machines, but if they had to hard boot a K-Trooper could expect to be down for a few minutes. He did not want to spend that time getting briefed by the disembodied voice speaking in his head. Still, it was the voice of a whole different Handler, which was curious to him. “Wait. You’re East Coast Ops, aren’t you?”
“Affirmative, Tiburon. It’s good to hear your voice.”
“Did you reset my system?”
“Apologies, Trooper. We had to do that to make the connection. You’ve been running your system hard, and some of the routines were locked up. We had to get in close to reset your communications with a targeted EMP pulse. You’re a hard man to find when you run dark, Sir.”
Sir. The West Coast Handler never called him “Sir.” It seemed the East Coast ran things more formally. Taking note of that fact he responded. “Well, I’m going to need a few minutes to monitor the boot post. I don’t want any errors popping up later and biting me in the ass.” He also had some… issues to work out. Like the situation with the sociopathic mind-reader back in Los Angeles that was constantly niggling in the back of his mind. She was a secret he wanted to keep for the moment. He was growing paranoid in his years.
“Roger that, Tiburon. Call us when you’re up.” The channel went dead, Josh’s brief reunion with The Ketamine Conspiracy ending as abruptly as it had started.
The K-Trooper tried to bring to memory the last couple of days, but he caught only split-second flashes of running and hiding. There’d been at least one gun fight, Josh knew that for sure. He seemed to remember shooting his way out of a tight situation with both hand-cannons blazing wildly around him. He also remembered some of his more nightmarish fever dreams. At least he hoped they were just fever dreams. The pump was starting to go haywire and sending chemical jolts throughout his nervous system, including his brain. He was amazed the Conspiracy was able to track him, operating as silently as he was, but his systems were seriously starting to misfire. He was probably throwing phase pulses at enemies both real and imagined. He thought about the gun fight memory again, something not sitting quite right.
“Handler, did I aggressively engage other K-Troopers?”
The channel remained silent for a few seconds, then, “That is correct, you did close in with and engage a three Trooper team.”
Three K-Troopers was a serious expenditure of resources. He must have been way out of control. Shaking his head, Josh asked, “Did I hurt any of them?”
Another pause, then, “You did, Tiburon.”
He gulped. “Did I kill any?”
“You did, Tiburon.”
Shit. He didn’t want to ask how many. “How many?”
“All of them, and six support personnel.”
The K-Trooper hung his head, ashamed and crushed at what he’d done. When the alleyway began to resolve itself slightly more distinctly across his multi-spectrum visual suite, Josh reported it. “Visual systems are online, Handler. One more left and I’ll be back up. You can debrief me now.”
“Roger that, Tiburon. We caught your signal five days ago passing through Queens. We couldn’t connect from the static network so we had to tap into mobile systems.”
“Affirmative. One was able to get an EMP pulse off close enough to reset your communications node, and we could send the reboot command.”
“How long ago?”
Two hours. He’d only been lying in the alley for two hours. That wasn’t too bad as far as being knocked out went, and he seemed to have been left undisturbed. Holstering his .45s he stalked towards the street. He ignored the outlines of the dead K-Troopers lying in broken positions in the darkness around him. He’d find time to dwell on them later.
“What happened, Handler? What happened to the West Coast? Were you hit?”
“You’ve been offline for a while. Somebody just dropped the entire West Coast network in a matter of minutes. It was done with a combination of systems assaults and facilities breaches. Every single base, post, and safe house fell under attack at pretty much the same time and all personnel slaughtered. It was brutal and swift. We’ve only just starting getting reconnaissance reports in from the Los Angeles area, and it doesn’t look good.”
Josh silently absorbed this news and considered the devastation. “How many made it out?”
“There is just one to date, Tiburon.”
The sole-survivor club is a very lonely and very grim world to enter into, and on this scale Josh was pretty much the lord of that dark realm. “How badly were you hit?”
“Not at all, Sir. We took zero casualties in the action, and lost no facilities. We were not hit.”
Josh pondered that for a few minutes. The Handler left him quietly to his thoughts. “OK, Handler, I think I have some idea who hit us.”
“Do you have a report to file with us, Tiburon?”
“I do. There is some sort of organization out there affiliated on the back end with an obscure philosophical movement. Transhuman-extropians or some such nonsense. The group is called Arbitrary Factor. I leave you to figure out what they think their name means. Anyway, these guys are good. They use some sort of technology to see through the Phase Wall to the other side, and claimed to be rooted in early ARPA projects, much like the Conspiracy. They came from a computer-related project. Real super-science stuff.” He unpleasantly recalled the two cyborgs he’d encountered, and said, “Also some pretty gruesome stuff. I assume you have collected data from my systems.”
“Yes Sir,” the neutrally-accented female voice said. “We concur with your assessment on that one.”
“Oh, and there is this one. An enemy agent called Eito Yoshida. He has been killed more than once, and yet he keeps reappearing. You can figure that one out, too. And there’s some new group calling itself The Veil, I think. I’ve only seen one, but he was well equipped. Not very well trained, though.”
“Roger that, Tiburon. Are you ready to come in?”
The invitation was too much to resist, but Josh resolved to keep his mouth shut about certain things. There were gaps in his logging systems he’d rather not have go into too much detail about, and he was sticking to the failing systems explanation for these inconsistencies. He wanted to keep Tulk, Libretta, and the Doctor a secret from the Conspiracy. He always liked to have an ace in the hole, just in case. “Yes, I’d like to come in. It’s cold out here.”
“We will be sending you an address shortly. Try to be there in an hour.”
The location was fifty miles away across dense urban terrain. The Handler wanted run Josh’s systems through their paces and collect some diagnostics. This particular K-Trooper was legendary to the Handlers, and they jostled for the opportunity to work with him. He seemed to survive everything through luck, violence, and sheer strength of will.
“I am on my way, Handler. Please engage Alert Mode.”
With a rush of chemicals Josh launched himself into motion, navigating the streets and rooftops with fluid velocity. When he fell into a rhythm he had the Handler activate Tactical Mode, and soon after that Phase Mode. It was a risk as far as Yoshida was still a threat, but Josh was willing to chance it. He was getting used to running hot, and made the distance in forty-five minutes. His metrics were well outside of specs, but he somehow endured the chemical bath coursing through his veins. His biological side had adapted itself to the extreme conditions and allowed for the flow of more and more chemicals.
The city flew by in a motion blur, a smear of washed out colors against the shadows. Josh could tell everything was running smooth as he bounded through traffic, phasing in and out of reality to pass through obstacles as they presented themselves.
The East Coast engineers were going to want to dissect him when they caught wind of his presence. Fortunately he was way more valuable alive than dead, given his status as the only K-Trooper to survive contact with this new enemy.
Josh came to a rest in the shadow of an apartment building entrance, just outside of the dim orange light of the street lamp. He studied the safe house with healthy suspicion born of recent events for a few moments. He still wasn’t quite sure if this was a trap or not. He couldn’t say if he went through the door across the street that he would come back out again. What if this was all some complex plot to capture him? Re-capture him.
“Fuck it.” Josh stood up and walked across the terrifying open to the door, glanced over his shoulder, and pushed his way into the building. He wanted answers, and it looked like the Conspiracy was feeling chatty.
The EMP pulse slammed Josh’s systems hard and sent a surge of pain through his body. His knees buckled and he collapsed face-first to the dirty floor. As his vision faded he thought he saw the outline of a woman’s high-heeled shoe swim into view.
* * * *
The usual post-knock-out headache was waiting on this side of consciousness when Josh began to wake up. His chin was resting against his chest as he gazed down at the floor. His arms were outstretched and he was shackled to the wall. He was starting to sense a recurring theme in his life. “I’m awake now,” he announced to anyone that was listening.
A door opened in the wall across the room from him and a small group of people wearing lab coats entered. They glanced up at Josh as they spoke in hushed tones with one another and studied various readings on what looked like glowing displays that hovered in front of their eyes.
“Does anybody want to tell me what is going on?” His voice was terse and filled with angry tension. He would tolerate few games.
One of the technicians stepped forward and adjusted his white jacket nervously. “Sir, we are running some diagnostics, just to be safe. We can’t have you bringing in anything… unexpected.” He grinned weakly and went back to communing with his fellow scientists.
Josh knew they weren’t afraid of any mystery computer virus. They were clearly afraid of him. That was fair enough, as he had just killed three of their K-Troopers just a few hours before. He wished they hadn’t hit him with the EMP gun again, though. Josh didn’t want to find out the effects of long term exposure first hand.
After a few more minutes of relentless study the scientists left in the same cluster they’d come in. The shackles loosened around his wrists and ankles, lowering Josh to the floor where he crouched and rubbed his wrists.
A woman in a gray quasi-uniform type suit walked in and handed Josh a white robe. She had liquid brown eyes and wore her dark hair up in an outdated style. “Welcome to Ketamine Conspiracy East Coast Operations, Tiburon.” She was surprisingly composed given her vulnerability. They either decided he was trustworthy or she was expendable.
Josh put the robe on and stood up straight. His pump was completely offline, which meant he was on his own if anything went bad here. “Let’s get on with this, then.”
“If you will come with me, please.” She was insistent on this point.
They stepped out into a well-lit hallway and walked slowly, Josh’s bare feet slapping the smooth floor. “I am Commander Trubeck, and I’ve been assigned as your liaison officer for the duration of your visit. You see our need for security precautions, I assume?”
Josh nodded and said, “No worries, Commander. I get it.” Not much of what this person told him was true, but it gave him a good frame of reference as to who he was dealing with. Conspiracy protocol was very complex.
“Good. It looks like we have an understanding. Have you been issued a pair of contacts yet?”
“No. They were still a prototype when the attacks hit.”
“You’ll be given a pair. Once you put them in they don’t need to be changed for a year.” They turned into a room with a stainless steel table that had various pieces of shiny chrome hardware arrayed across it. She picked up one after another and hovered over various parts of Josh’s body, measuring different aspects of his pump system.
“How does everything look?” Josh was getting tired of being studied.
“Your systems are running out of specifications. If we installed this in a fresh recruit it would kill him in a matter of minutes.” She paused and looked up at him with dark eyes. “I’ve never seen anything like it. How long have you been a K-Trooper?”
Josh shrugged at the question. “I’m not sure. My memory isn’t all that great.”
Trubeck stepped back and pursed her lips. “What is your name, K-Trooper?”
Josh looked down at the floor. “Tiburon, Commander.”
“No, your real name. What is your real name, K-Trooper?”
“I don’t know.”
The Commander’s mouth hung open with surprise. “Fucking sloppy West Coast Ops bastard assholes,” she spat out with venom. “He’s a Machine.” She looked up angrily at one of the hidden monitoring cameras and shouted, “West Coast was running Machines!”
Josh’s head swam and he reached out to steady himself against the wall. Trubeck took his hand and guided him back out into the hall, heedless of whatever danger he posed to her. “I knew those bastards were breaking some rules, but I never would have guessed this,” she muttered more to herself than to Josh. “God knows how long they’ve been running you like this.”
They came to a rest in another room with blank white walls, just like every other room they’d passed through. This one at least had some furnishings in the form of a bed, a table, and a couple of chairs. “What’s a Machine?” Josh asked quietly.
The liaison officer hesitated for a moment and glanced nervously sidelong at the K-Trooper. “You will be debriefed first thing tomorrow morning. For now you should rest. You will be staying here, Tiburon, until we can sort things out.” She gestured to the bed and continued. “It is 11PM local time, and breakfast will be delivered in seven hours.”
Josh glanced around and said, “And facilities?”
The Commander paused on her way out the door and pointed towards an empty corner. “Over there. You figure it out.” With that she was gone, the door sliding smoothly shut behind her.
He didn’t feel any safer now than he did before, but Josh was exhausted. He threw himself into the bed and fell promptly to sleep, ignoring the needling voice in the back of his mind warning him of possible dangers. He was starting to feel paranoid.
* * * *
The room had the look of a psychiatrist’s office, but without glass windows. This place was more clinical. The person Josh was coming to call in his head The Inquisitor sat behind desk and studied notes for a minute. Josh was starting to hate this guy. He’d been answering his questions for over a week, and was done wasting time. He was going to bring things to a head himself. “So explain to me,” he uttered darkly. “What is a Machine?”
The Inquisitor pursed his lips and leaned back in his chair. “That’s a tough question you’re asking, Tiburon. I’m not sure you’re ready to know just yet.”
“I see.” Josh glared from his chair at The Inquisitor.
“Unfortunately, the decision is no longer mine.” The Inquisitor shifted uncomfortably in his seat. I have been ordered to brief you on the subject of the Machine Phenomena. In the early history of the Conspiracy the K-Trooper development program it was discovered that a K-Trooper could develop a natural resistance to the implanted systems that would allow them to run longer and harder than previously possible.” The therapist paused for a moment, lost in thought.
“Go on,” Josh urged impatiently. “Let’s get this done.”
“The abilities were amazing, but the side-effects were extreme. Men weren’t designed to run this way, and the human body sometimes reacted in unexpected ways. In the case of the Machine Phenomena the subject… err, the Trooper, loses significant portions of their life memories. Skills and talents remained, but there was no real support structure for complex emotional operations. Their statistics were orders of magnitude more powerful than most other K-Troopers, but they could become hard to control after only a brief time. Their loyalty almost inevitably came under question, and more than one turned on the Conspiracy. It wasn’t long before the order came down to terminate each one that happened across the tables. The conversion happened early in the pump installation process, when the chemical first hit the brain, and the defect was easily spotted.”
“But some got through.” Josh was telling, not asking.
The Inquisitor lowered his head briefly. “Early on, yes; before we even knew there was a Machine Phenomenon. Those were all to be terminated in the field, but apparently some were allowed to continue operations.” The psychiatrist cocked his head slightly. “Around twenty-five years is a long time.”
Josh’s rage flared, and he stood over the arrogant doctor’s desk. “You were there,” he accused angrily.
“Agent Tiburon, I assure you that…”
Josh stepped towards the door and forced his will on the installed pump. As it booted up, Josh hopped up onto the desk and grabbed The Inquisitor by the throat, certain the little man had already sent an alert. Little bastard had probably seen it coming. As the chemicals hit his nervous system Josh shuddered, but maintained his focus through the changes. He gripped the choking man’s throat tightly enough to incapacitate him, but not enough to kill him. “You can assure me of what?” he hissed.
“I can assure you, we mean you no har…”
Josh squeezed a little bit, silencing the irritating words. He hoped he had a minute or two to at least get his visual systems going. He wasn’t holding out too much hope for a good phase pulse to be ready within that kind of timeframe, though.
It looked like he was about to kill some more of his fellow K-Troopers.