By Lauren Roy
Jo’s breath fogged the Perspex case, momentarily obscuring the prototype from view. Inside, the device lay dormant, all sleek silver curves and a blank interface awaiting its commands. On its own, Jo told herself, it was just a machine. It made no moral judgments. It saved lives or ended them, and the person who fed it the instructions was to thank or blame, not this lump of metal and wires.
Jo hated it a little bit anyway. She also needed it, and that made her hate it even more.
“Hey, kiddo, shake a leg, yeah?” Blake had been on edge all night. They’d gotten into DuttonTech so smoothly — fake badges letting them into restricted areas, Jo’s disguised tools sailing through security, green lights across every board. Blake trusted Jo and Dana to get them in, sure, but the fact he’d gone the last few hours without having to subdue so much as a slightly suspicious intern was making him antsy. Jo couldn’t blame him; Archangel never hired their crew for the cakewalk jobs.
But she wasn’t going to let Blake’s nerves unsteady her hands. She was elbow deep in the display case’s guts, only the last set of clamps and a weight sensor left to bypass. Easy peasy lemon-squeezy. She’d be home and in her pajamas in less than two hours, cracking a pint of victory ice cream and texting Leanne with the good news, that help was on its way. This was a killing machine in Dr. Alexander Dutton’s hands, but in Leanne’s possession? Jo’s sister could use it to save thousands.
She just had to unlatch the clamps.
Blake checked the cameras for the hundredth time. Downstairs, the security guards in their cozy little command room were watching the same looped feeds of Dutton’s lab Dana had set up hours ago. He knew the timing of their rounds, knew which guards just jiggled the occasional doorknob and which would swipe their access cards and look around the empty, after-hours rooms. He’d studied the dossiers Dana gathered for him over the last few weeks. The patrol team closest to their floor right now consisted of an ex-military type and a guy whose pre-DuttonTech police record was peppered with assault charges from bar fights. Ideally, Blake wouldn’t have to trade blows with either of them, but he believed in being prepared.
Waiting was killing him. He’d offered to smash the case when they first got here, just grab and go, but both Dana and Jo had shot him down. Something about delicately calibrated this and potentially volatile that. Of course, that described everything that DuttonTech put out these days, especially the volatile part. Blake had seen firsthand the damage the company’s products wrought. He’d wielded some of them himself, back in another life.
He’d never stop paying for that. Could never. But working for Archangel assuaged some of the guilt. He clenched his fists and tamped down the urge to find some other volatile thing and pitch it into anything that looked delicate.
Dana had six different data feeds scrolling past on her glasses’ left lens, telling her all DuttonTech systems were normal. She was jacked into the guard station’s audio, listening to two guards being wrong about the top five horror movies of all time. She’d set her little worm free on DuttonTech’s R&D servers — after, of course, she downloaded clean versions of the files to her own drive to peruse later. According to her own internal stopwatch (ONE one thousand, TWO one thousand) her team was right on schedule.
It was too bad they’d never be able to take credit for tonight, because damn, they were good. She imagined herself at some fancy Archangel cocktail party, regaling new cells with the story. Maybe she would embellish it, just a little, add in a tiny scuffle so Blake could have his crowning moment of awesome. Add in a few extra lasers for Jo to have to limbo under, and…
“Shit,” muttered Jo.
The lights in the lab went red.
There was an extra clamp. There was an extra freaking clamp, and it was so tiny and so obvious in hindsight, exactly where Jo would have put one if she wanted to protect her valuables from someone like herself. It hadn’t been on the blueprints Dana procured in one of her hacks, because of course it wasn’t. Dutton was notoriously paranoid. He’d either installed it himself, in secret, or had one of his lackeys do it and…what? Wiped their memory? Had them killed? Transferred them to a DuttonTech facility in Antarctica? Jo wouldn’t put any of that past him.
But that didn’t matter now. Their cover was blown. Dana was counting off the seconds until security got to them, her fingers flashing over her tablet’s screen. “We’re about to have company.”
Blake came and crouched beside Jo. He glanced at her hands, frozen on the prototype. “Kiddo, we’ve gotta run. Now. If you don’t have it free, you have to leave it.”
He frowned. “You stuck?”
“Something gonna cut off your fingers if you move?”
“What is it, then?”
Jo closed her eyes and pictured her sister’s face. “Leanne. She’s with the LRE in Caracas.”
Blake’s sharp inhale told her that he hadn’t known. Jo didn’t talk about Leanne much. He and Dana knew that Jo’s parents had been dissidents, murdered by their government for speaking out. They knew she and Leanne grew up in safe houses where they were never truly safe, and that Jo had turned to Archangel when she got old enough to be more than a charity case for the organization. That was about as much intel as Jo ever shared, because talking about Leanne made her worry. And worry had sharp, sharp teeth.
“You saw the emails Dana intercepted. Dutton’s going to sell this to the enemy, then that’s it for the resistance. This isn’t just about Leanne.”
Blake might let everyone else in Archangel think he was all muscle, minimal brains, but Jo knew better. He’d read the whole dossier, not just the guards’ vitals. “How long do you need?” His voice was deadly calm.
“However long you can buy me.”
“Get that thing out of there.” Then he was gone.
“We’re doing what now?” Dana gaped at Blake as he assessed the camera feeds on her tablet. She’d managed to lock the guards out of the elevators for the time being but couldn’t keep them out of the stairwells. One patrol had only been a few stories down.
He grunted as the patrol he was monitoring gained another landing. “We’re holding tight until Jo gets that damned thing free. What else can you do to keep them out of here?”
Dana peered around the lab. Until now, she hadn’t really let herself see everything. Sure, she knew the layout, and had a strong idea of what other projects DuttonTech’s brain trust were working on, but being here in meatspace? The temptation to start taking things apart would have distracted her from their mission. She’d kept her eyes firmly on her work and ignored the siren song of the shiny.
Now, though… She took it all in, performing a frantic inventory with a glance. “Get me a screwdriver,” she said, “and every inch of wire you can find.”
For a hasty build, it was impressive. Dana had to guess at what a quarter of the parts she found even were, but as she stared at the small mountain of electronics Blake dumped on the desk, the schematic came together in her head. The spliced wires and electrical tape meant it would never win any beauty pageants at the hackathon, but that didn’t matter.
As long as it did its job.
She dragged her cobbled-together creation out into the hall. It whined as it powered up; the highpitched tone of power gathering combined with a low, ominous hum. Dana listened a moment, until it sounded stable enough, and darted back inside. As Blake shoved a pair of desks across the doorway, Dana scuttled further into the lab and planted herself near Jo. The other woman nodded slightly, acknowledging her presence, but didn’t peel her eyes from the device inside the case.
“How are we looking?” Dana asked.
“There’s a wire on the last clamp. It’s what tripped the alarm. I’m trying to make sure it’s not going to fry the whole thing when I remove it.”
“Smart,” said Dana, then, “Oops, hang on, big noise.” On her tablet’s screen, the camera view showed two guards emerging from the stairwell. She counted (ONE one thousand, TWO one thousand, THREE) and yelled, “Blake, NOW!”
Across the lab, Blake slammed his fist down on the trigger Dana rigged. He dropped into a huddle, covering his ears.
The lab doors were, by necessity, prettied-up fire doors. Sure, deep-pocketed investors on a grand tour of DuttonTech could glance through the extra-thick glass to see scientists bustling about within, but if something exploded during a demo, those investors (and their wallets) would be safe. Now, those same doors muffled the worst of Dana’s sonic barrage. The pair of guards dropped to the ground, hands covering their ears as they writhed in pain.
The disruptor’s effects would only last for so long, though. Already, Dana could tell the pulses were losing their potency. “Thirty seconds, Jo. Then they’re back on their feet and super pissed.”
It was impossible. Jo held the wire pinched between her fingers, this hair-thin filament, and knew it was all for nothing.
Stupid, stupid, stupid. Leanne, I’m sorry.
If she’d only taken one last look, she’d have spotted the trap. If she only had another five minutes, she could undo it. But time was well past up. Blake and Dana stood by the doors, their jaws set, their expressions grim. That awful thrumming pulse outside let out one last whump, and an eerie silence took its place.
If she was fast enough, faster than she’d ever been in her life, she could mitigate the damage. Not prevent it entirely, but… But enough.
Jo steadied the prototype with her left hand, readied the wire in her right.
She held her breath.
The spark traveled up her fingers, to her wrist, straight up to her elbow. The sharp tang of hot metal, melted plastic, and seared flesh filled the air. Had she taken the brunt of the jolt? She thought so but wouldn’t know until Dana got a look at the device later. When they were safe. Jo pulled the prototype free of its case and ignored the tingling in her fingertips. She joined Blake and Dana at the door. “Let’s go.”
In the hallway, the security guards were gaining their feet. Blake smiled.
The first one got up. He staggered as his balance betrayed him, but Blake wasn’t going to take that for granted. Guy like this? He had to fight after being pepper sprayed, tazed, or whatever the hell else they made Navy SEALs do. Sure, Dana’s device had done its damage, but Blake bet this guard was exaggerating its extent. It’s what he’d have done.
Three strides and Blake was in the ex-SEAL’s face. Sort of. The dude was a giant, six-and-half feet tall with a neck like a tree trunk. Blake only came up to his chest. His opponent swung, a short, sharp blow that would have knocked a weaker fighter flat. But Blake had training of his own. He deflected the jab, but as he’d suspected, the guard wasn’t as bad off as he’d pretended. More shots rained down, driving Blake backwards toward the lab.
A streak of red skittered down the hall toward him. Jo had liberated one of the lab’s fire extinguishers and shoved it his way. Blake danced out of the ex-SEAL’s reach and scooped it up. Only one shot at this. He swung it in a high haymaker arc, cranking the extinguisher’s heavy bottom into the ex-SEAL’s jaw. The big man went down in a graceless heap.
Blake looked back to where Dana and Jo huddled in the doorway and signaled them forward. Jo winced as she passed the first guard. Then she stopped short. “Uh. Blake?”
He thought the second guy was down for the count. It was the bar brawler, the one who should’ve been an easy takedown except…except he’d managed to unholster his sidearm and push himself to his feet. His arm wavered, but even if his aim was off, the hallway was narrow enough that he’d probably hit one of them.
“Easy, now,” said Blake. “Let’s all be calm.”
“Drop the extinguisher,” said the guard. “And you, put down the device.” He swung the gun toward Jo, and Blake felt his heart hit his stomach. That wasn’t a standard-issue piece. It was a DuttonTech special; destruction in Glock’s clothing. Blake had carried one of the previous generation himself. He’d seen what they could do, how the bullets tore up a body as they passed through.
“Okay.” Blake lowered the extinguisher, hoping to get the guard’s focus back on himself. “Look, we’re cooperating, see?”
“Oh, fuck that,” snarled Dana. She shoved past Blake, keeping to the other side of the hall from the guard — out of arm’s reach, but drawing his attention.
“I’ll shoot!” The guard whirled to follow her. His finger tensed on the trigger.
Blake barreled forward. He could never beat a bullet, but he had to try. The corridor seemed miles long, the air thickened like molasses. The guard might as well have been on the other side of the world, for all the good Blake could do. He saw the trigger pull back in agonizing detail, heard Jo screaming Dana’s name.
Dana just kept walking.
The gun didn’t fire.
Time started again, and Blake plowed into the guard at top speed. He drove him back and slammed his wrist against the wall until he dropped the weapon. Blake got a forearm across the guy’s neck and twisted to look at Dana. “What the hell?”
“Oh. Yeah.” She stopped fiddling with her eyepiece and came to stand beside him, still well out of the guard’s reach. She addressed the guard instead of Blake. “That thing that split your eardrums two minutes ago? I also had it resonating at the same frequency as the timing crystal in your shiny new gun. Probably cracked it. You shouldn’t pick it up again.” She gave Blake an apologetic grin. “I should have told you: I don’t make unitaskers. Learned it from a TV chef. Now will you knock him out, so we can go?”
Archangel paid damned well. Jo funneled most of her paychecks down to Leanne, helping to fund the revolution and keep her sister fed, clothed, and armed. With what was left, she bought tools to help with her craft. One of the first things she’d learned was, to be a good thief, you ought to have a good getaway car. So, she sunk a ridiculous amount of money into an old tank of a car and paid even more to have it tuned up, tricked out, and street legal. It had served her well so far, and now, with DuttonTech heavies chasing them through the city’s 3 A.M. streets, Jo prayed it’d get them home safe one more time.
It took 10 blocks for the black SUV to catch up to them. She’d figured a clean getaway was too much to ask, but Jo cursed the universe anyway. “Get ready,” she said, and jammed on the gas. Bullets hit the car’s frame like a sudden spate of rain. The back window spidered with cracks but held firm. She was glad she’d splurged on the bulletproofing.
The SUV sped up, drawing even with them. Jo stared ahead at the rain-slick street. The good thing about pulling off their heist so late at night was that no one drove in the business district at this hour. They had a good straightaway and, as she watched, all the lights turned green. In the rearview, Dana flashed her a thumbs-up.
Metal screamed, and the whole car shuddered as the SUV slammed into their side. Jo fought the wheel to keep them on the road. In the passenger seat, Blake swore as the door crunched inward.
PULL OVER, came a voice over the SUV’s bullhorn. RETURN WHAT YOU STOLE, AND WE’LL LET YOU GO.
Blake flipped them off.
Another sideswipe, and the car rode up on the curb. Jo swore and yanked them back onto the street, but not before she took out a row of newspaper boxes.
“You know what?” said Blake. “We’re risking our lives for this thing, I think we deserve a demo.” He pulled the prototype from the backpack Jo had shoved it in.
“Uhhhh.” Dana poked her head into the front seat. “Remember that talk we had about delicate and volatile?”
“She’s right. And I might have damaged it when I took it out of the case,” said Jo. “We don’t know what it’ll —”
But Blake was already pushing buttons, and the blank interface was responding to his touch. The options flashing by read stun, pulse, and stream, and a slider ran from low to high. Blake selected pulse and pushed the slider all the way up.
“Point it at them, not us!” Dana shrieked.
Blake turned the device and held the business end up to the window. Jo caught a glimpse of the SUV driver as he aimed. All the color drained out of the DuttonTech security woman’s face. She turned her wheel, disengaging the SUV from Jo’s car, but not soon enough. Blake slapped the automatic window button, and as soon as he could get the prototype’s nose through the gap, he fired.
They couldn’t see the pulse, but they felt it. Jo’s fillings buzzed. Every bone she’d ever broken ached like there was a storm overhead. The SUV flipped up and over, and for one terrible second, Jo could see what the pulse had done to the people inside, how none of their features were in the right places anymore. How everything had gone so very red. She’d be seeing that in her nightmares for years to come.
None of them said anything as they pulled away. In the rearview, Dana’s eyes were wide, her lips gone white. Blake let out a ragged sigh. The device’s interface blurred, cleared, then switched to one blinking red word:
The sun was coming up by the time they got back to their safehouse. Dana switched on the morning news while she examined the prototype. Not a word about their break-in at DuttonTech. Not a peep about a late-night car chase in the business district, nor any stories about a deadly crash. DuttonTech had covered it all up. Was that good for them, or bad?
Can’t worry about that just now. Let’s make sure we’re not going to explode first.
She handled the device gingerly, as if it might wake up and turn the three of them into human slag, but it turned out there wasn’t much chance of that. She could see the burn marks where Jo had pulled it from its kill switch. Once the casing came off, the insides were about as fried as she’d expected, even though Jo had taken some of the shock. “I don’t know how this even turned on in the car, let alone fired.”
“Is that it, then?” asked Jo. “All that work and it’s just…a hunk of metal?” She didn’t have to say her sister’s name for Dana to know she was thinking of Leanne, how she’d been counting on getting the prototype out intact to help her. Dana had made that connection long before she handed Jo and Blake their dossiers.
“Hey.” Dana set her tools aside. “First off, we’ve set DuttonTech back. They don’t have the physical prototype, and their IT group is going to have a miserable time sorting out the mess I uploaded to their servers before anyone there can even think about building another.”
Blake came in from the kitchen, carrying a tray with three coffee mugs and Jo’s pint of victory ice cream. He’d declared getting out alive a sufficient win, and Jo hadn’t argued the point. “She’s right, kiddo. We’re not even close to done. If Dana can’t get this thing up and running, someone in Archangel will know who can.”
“I have an idea about that.” Dana took her mug gratefully. She was bone tired but needed to stave off sleep as long as she could. There was too much to do. “The woman who taught me to do what I do, she studied alongside Dutton back in the day. If we can find her, I think she’ll be able to fill in a whole ton of gaps.”
Jo frowned. “‘If?’”
“No one’s heard from her for a while. She went off the grid, and we don’t know why. Last place she was spotted was Brussels.” Dana set the prototype aside and tapped her tablet awake. “Who’s up for a rescue mission?
The Trinity Continuum Core Rules and Trinity Continuum: Æon are available in print from Indie Press Revolution (core, Æon) or in PDF/print-on-demand from DriveThruRPG.