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Aberrant: 2011 - (TBO) Earthshaking


Nathan Dayes

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Date: August 23rd, 2009

Time: 8:37 AM

Location: Los Angeles

Everyone needed a hobby. Commander's orders.

Being an operations agent for the Directive meant a lot of pressure, and it rewarded agents with a singular, almost obsessive focus. Obsessive behavior wasn't good for the soul, however, and everyone was strongly encouraged to find a hobby to do when they weren't chasing after misbehaving novas.

Commander William McSweeney, leader of Operations Cell Sundial, wrote novels about war in his spare time, much to Nathan's amazement - though the commander hadn't tried to get any published. Makeem Yahawei liked to go camping and fishing. Cassandra Orange built model trains and rockets. Nathalya Sukov painted - giant canvases full of abstract colors, one of which was on Nathan's wall.

Nathan had considered reading his hobby, but it wasn't much of one. Mostly nonfiction, because he sometimes needed escapism after the reports he read at work. But lately he'd grown tired of patronizing the same dozen fast-food parlors - it was all the same to his metabolism, but he'd outgrown the taste. About a couple of years too late, granted, but better late than never.

So he'd started teaching himself to cook. He'd discovered he was very good at it - it was like chemistry, only you were allowed to eat what you made. At the moment he was putting together an omelet, with some spices that he'd ground the previous night. He'd tried growing his own herbs, but gardening was beyond him for the moment.

He looked around at the apartment. It was still spartan - he'd given most of his books away, getting them all replicated on e-book readers and chips. The way operations cells worked, he might not be here for long, and it'd do no good accumulating too much of what he couldn't pack. Natalya's painting was on the wall, opposite his television and a video game system. A set of VR goggles, or virgogs, sat unused atop the system - dimensionalized movies and games gave him a headache. The window outlooked Los Angeles from three stories up and it looked like a beautiful day off.

They'd had a busy few weeks - there was a red flag out in San Francisco, where a forensics team had found a piece of shrapnel embedded in a body they fished out of the river, that looked very much like something the Teragen nova Shrapnel would create. Shrapnel was difficult to track - dormancy ability of some kind was suspected - and after a few weeks of running around, the trail had gone cold and Sundial had returned to Los Angeles. There were no operations pending and so, they were grabbing some time off.

Nathan finished up the omelet and slid it onto the waiting plate. He set it on the table and grabbed the cutlery. Once I get good at this, he though to himself, I seriously should considering inviting them over. He'd grown to enjoy working under Commander McSweeney's leadership, and the Commander struck him as the kind who wouldn't turn down a free meal.

He set his glass of water down, and cut a bit of the omelette out and tasted it. "Hmmm," he said to himself. "Bit less salt..."

He frowned, as the water in the glass vibrated a bit. Earthquake? Small one, it looked like. That was something that had taken a while to get used to once he was back in Los Angeles, the tiny little tremors...

This one only started out tiny. It grew, and suddenly Nathan felt his blood run cold. "Shit..."

He only hesitated for a second. He stood up and made his way to the doorway, as the rumbling grew and grew. Fuck, I'm on the third floor - ten floors above me - stay calm, Nathan, you can handle this...

He made it to the doorway as the shaking reached its crescendo. Natalya's painting fell from the wall. His glass of water spilt on the table. The plate danced across the table. The window cracked, and then shattered, and a horrible groaning noise rang through the apartment - no, through the building, as Nathan realized that the support struts for the building were being stressed...

I can handle this. I can handle this...

Except, he realized suddenly, he couldn't. He was fast and agile and tough, smart and perceptive and versatile, but this was an earthquake and it'd chew him up just as fast as the next guy. There were no powers to absorb, no suspect to tail, no target to shoot. He was out of his element and now, right now, it'd be a good idea to get out of the building as well.

He grabbed his coat and ran into the hallway as the groaning noise grew, setting his hair on edge. Doors were opening around him as he raced for the emergency stairwell. Some kid cried out for his mother.

I forgot my gun.

What the hell will you need it for, Nathan?

The shaking grew even worse. He was thrown off his feet by something that sounded like someone hitting a brick with a sledgehammer. He righted himself and realized that the entire building was tilting slightly. He lunged for the door, throwing it open, and took the steps five at a time.

The ground floor's exit burst open and he ran out into the street. The shaking had grown even worse – other people were coming out of the surrounding buildings, all looking panicked. He heard glass breaking all along the block, and the ground tilting beneath his feet. A seam ripped across the roar, like a river cutting through the asphalt, and then one half of the street lurched upwards, throwing him off his feet.

He struggled to stand, as people streamed out of the buildings, shouting and screaming. He heard a crunching noise, and a hiss, and smelt natural gas...

Shit. Shit! SHIT -

Before he could run, a spark was tossed by torn metal somewhere, and there was a roar that shook the world, and he felt himself lifted off his feet. There was a flash that accompanied the roar, that drowned out everything else. He felt himself rise, and then fall...

And then nothing.

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  • 4 months later...

Date: ??????

Time: ????

Location: Somewhere in Los Angeles

When he eventually awoke, he wished he hadn't.

His head felt like there were steel screws being shoved into his skull by some spectral screwdriver. His vision swam, and he groaned. Concussion, he thought. C'mon, Nathan. Butch up.

A pair of clouds - no, one cloud, that he couldn't focus on - drifted overhead, against a sky of clear, cast blue. It was a wonderful day for an earthquake.

He was lying on something lumpy, but soft. Carefully he tested his extremities, wiggling fingers and toes. Everything responded. There was a ringing in his ear, which was possibly a sign he was going to go deaf, but past that, he could hear voices. Someone shouting about bottled water... so there were others around. That was good.

Okay, take it slow. Up just a little bit at a time.

He moved his arms, wincing, and propped himself up, looking around carefully. He was lying on a bed made of jackets, one of them his; there were two people lying to his left and one to his right. He was just down the block from where his apartment was, and there were a few dozen people running around, in a state of what looked like coordinated panic. It didn't take long to see who was calling the shots; a middle-aged black woman, organizing a crate of bottled water. All the bottles were different shapes and sizes, and Nathan wondered idly where she was getting the water from.

After a moment, she looked up, noticing he was awake. She smiled, and got up, walking towards him. "Take it easy, son. You were right next to the gas main when it went off."

"I'll be fine. I could eat a horse, though. Ow..." He shifted slightly. "How bad is it?"

"The earthquake? Bad. Probably worst one I've ever seen." She looked around, and shook her head. "And I've seen my share, and your share too."

"You see to be holding up well. You have water..."

"I have a fuel cell car, and the exhaust is going in the bottles. Like I said, seen my share and your share of these. I know what to expect. Now you just rest, son. I'll get you some water and we'll wait for aid to arrive. Mary and Joseph, never a cop or a nova around when you need one..."

Nathan frowned. Nova.

He breathed in and out slowly, and his perspective of the world blueshifted, sliding into a lower frame of reference he called the Q-zone - the raw quantum understructure of his surroundings. It was a handy power for seeing with no light, because he wasn't seeing reflected light at all - it was also handy for picking up residual quantum energy from nova powers, in case you wanted to confirm or disprove nova involvement with an earthquake.

He looked around for quantum traces that indicated a nova, as the woman spoke. "Cellphones are out. So is wireless OpNet. All that's left is radio - Peter over there, he has one of those camping radios with a generator you hand-crank built in."

"He pick up anything interesting?"

"Hmmm? Oh, no, no, nothing."

"You don't sound sure."

"Just probably some kids with no taste playing a prank, is all. Something about how..." She paused for a moment, taking in that breath you took to steady yourself when relating something you didn't want to believe, but deep down, you did. "About how the earthquake was caused by Divis Mal."

Nathan blinked, and his vision slid back into normal space. "Divis Mal?"

She nodded. Nathan frowned. Well, that's bad news. I don't see any traces around here, but I don't think this is the epicenter. It doesn't fit Mal's profile, though. Not his style. "I don't think it's him. I think it's just a bunch of idiot posers, myself."

"Me too," she lied. "Now, let me go and get you some water, mister...?"

"Dayes. Nathan Dayes." Nathan winced as he shifted his weight. "It's no trouble, I can walk - "

"I'm sure you can, but let's not take any chances, hm? Be right back." She smiled, and left.

Nathan sat up further, rubbing his head. Well, trust the voice of experience on this one, he thought. I can put a bullet through an eyeball at half a klik but this is my first big earthquake. Which one's my jacket...?

Nathan padded through the coats, pulling out a long black one, that he remembered grabbing on his way out the door. He checked the pockets – Swiss Army pocket knife in the weave, about three dollars in change in the pockets, a rolled-up wad of emergency bribe money sewn into the collar, and -

His phone. Which was buzzing.

Nathan groaned. He'd been to a movie last night - a from-Directive-casefiles based-on-a-true-story Mumbai action movie piece of shit, where bullets sent the target flying back a dozen feet on impact, all Directive IntCell agents worked in a single room the size of a gymnasium, and tracking worldwide suspect movement took three mouse clicks instead of three hundred RFIs, each one more strongly worded than the last. The Bollywood musical numbers every twenty minutes didn't help either. He'd left the theater with an urge to go to the gun range back at HQ armed with a pistol, one hundred rounds of ammunition, and the newspaper review that had recommended the movie as a must-see.

He'd turned his phone's ringer off and forgotten to turn it back on. It was one of the Directive's superphones, able to use old-school cellular, wireless OpNet, and in a pinch, direct satellite transmission. The buzzing was telling him he had a message via direct satlink.

He turned the phone on, and let it scan his eyeball, struggling to hold his gaze steady. It read the chip implanted in his wristbone and measured his thumbprint. Satisfied, it gave him a listing:

Welcome Agent Dayes

New Messages: (1)

He pressed a couple of buttons, reading the message.

Attention Sundial

Rendezvous if Able at Williams High School Gymnasium

Priority Alpha

DNR

He checked the message's metadata. He'd received it eight hours ago, and it had been sent about an hour and a half past the earthquake. Nothing more than standard encryption, and it didn't seemed timed to coincide with a piggybacked signal... which meant that out there, people who were watching out for Directive transmissions just got a payoff. They might not be able to read the message but they'd know that one was sent. And C3I would know that they'd be out there, which meant that the message was important enough to risk it.

So: was he able to rendezvous?

Silly question.

He forced himself to stand, and pocketed the phone, and headed off in the direction of Williams High School. His head hurt, his legs hurt, his ears rang with a tiny whine, but if C3I needed Sundial this badly, then Sundial they would get.

* * *

Interlude One

Date: August 27th, 2009

Time: 11:01 PM

Location: LAX International Airport

"Good evenin', Mister Dain."

The voice belonged to a tall, thin man with sandy blond hair and a bit of stubble on his face. There was a cut, held shut with bandages, on his forehead. He was squatting on the floor, face to face with the man he spoke to, a man with receding brown hair, one black eye, and a leg in a makeshift splint.

"Mmmf. Nn."

"Hell of an earthquake, wasn't it?" The blond man looked around as he spoke. The only lights on were emergency-only, casting the hallway in a menacing red glow. The area was quiet, a rarity for LAX. There were footsteps coming down the corridor.

"Earthquake...?"

"They say it could be the big one. We don't know a thing. From what I heard, aid's gonna be a long time comin', too. Gonna just have to make the best of it." He smiled. "Name's Travis."

"Roger Dain..."

"Yeah, I know."

Roger blinked, trying to shake the cobwebs out of his mind. "How..."

"You know what I think sums up humanity at its best, Roger?"

"Uh..."

"Taking something bad and turning it into something good." Travis looked to the side at the approaching footsteps, and smiled. "Take Ethiopia, for example. A sand-blasted shithole one day with little emaciated kids runnin' around no matter how much money I mailed off to Unicef, an' then another day, three years later, the fruit is so abundant that the trees sag in autumn. Just fascinates me, Roger. Mind if I call you Roger?"

"Who are you?"

"Told you, I'm Travis. Travis James Tucker at your service. Anyways, back on my train of thought; something bad turning into something good. The fuel-cell car - exhaust is distilled water. I drank water from the tailpipe of the first fuel-cell car released in North America. In fact, that's keepin' a hell of a lot of people in this very city goin' right now, I imagine. Used to be that car exhaust was so toxic it was a great way to kill yourself and now it's keepin' people alive. Funny how fate works. Howdy, Martha."

Roger turned to look at the newcomer, a young Caucasian woman with brown hair, blue eyes, and a discolored bruise on her forehead. She was holding a pair of water bottles, and handed one to Travis. "Doors are locked?"

"They're locked. I see he's awake. Hello, Mister Dain."

"Who are you people?"

"Oh, we're the type of people who take something bad an' turn it into something good, Roger. Like this earthquake. Terrible. Horrible. Could be hundreds dead, maybe thousands. But we're able to extract a tiny little bit of good out of it, y'see - if it hadn't hit when it had, you'd be on your flight home and we'd have never caught up to you."

"Oh God."

Martha held up a leather wallet, with a badge on one side and an ID Card on the other. "Martha Foster, Utopian Science and Technological Regulation. Travis is my partner, Mister Dain, and you're in a lot of trouble."

"I don't know what -"

"Shhh." Travis held a finger up to his lips. "Maybe you don't know. So I'm gonna tell you what we do know. We know you're a mule, Roger Dain, and that you get paid money to ferry information, contact points, and occasionally some blacktech prototypes from the Japanese corporation Kuro-Tek, to the international intelligence organization called the Directive. We know you came to Los Angeles with a disc in your hand and I just searched you, so we know you were gonna leave without it. Meaning you made a drop somewhere. All we wanna know is where."

Roger was silent. Martha folded her arms. "We're authorized to make you a deal, Mister Dain. All sins forgiven, witness protection from Kuro-Tek and the Directive's spooks, if you give us the location of your drop and we find something there."

"They've probably already picked it up..."

"We're willing to take the chance. Just tell us yes or no: are you willing to cooperate?"

"Bearin' in mind that if you say no, we're gonna have to search all the locations we suspect the spooks of usin'. That could take a while. We might forget we left you here in a locked tunnel." Travis took a swig of his water. "With none of this, either."

Roger shook his head. "I can't."

"We can protect you - "

"No, you don't understand. I can't let you get the location out of me. Dammit. I never thought I'd have to - "

Travis lunged, grabbing Roger's face with his hands. "Oh no you don't! Spit it out - "

Roger kicked at Travis with his good leg, and thrashed around. Travis struggled to keep his grip. "Martha, goddammit, gimmie a hand!"

Martha grabbed Roger by the shoulders, trying to force him in place. Travis tried to force his jaws open. "Don't you dare fuckin' swallow, you - "

Roger's adams apple moved up and down, moments before Travis forced his mouth open. Travis stared at the shattered molar, and cursed, letting go and standing up.

"I was bluffing, you dumb son of a bitch! I wasn't really gonna leave you to die! Fuck my ass. Shit."

Martha stayed crouched, staring at Roger as his eyes rolled back in his head. "He poisoned himself? Jesus - "

"Yeah, he did. An' now we got two dozen suspected drops to clear, an' there's no way we'll beat the spooks unless we get really goddamn lucky. Fuck you very much, Mister Roger Dain, sir."

Martha brushed her fingers over Roger's eyes, and sighed. Then she started going through his pockets.

"You don't think he had it written down, do ya?"

"No, but he might have something - a parking stub, an ATM receipt - that can help us narrow it down."

"Hmmm. Yeah, he just might. Good thinkin', Martha."

"Thanks. You were seriously bluffing?" Martha pulled out Roger's wallet and went looking through the folds.

"Course I was. Ignorin' the fact that he's worth more alive than dead, if I was gonna kill him I'd be quick about it. And so far I don't think he'd done anything worth dyin' over." He looked down the corridor, and sighed. "Now, the sons of bitches who told him to fill a tooth up with cyanide? They're the ones I'm pissed at."

* * *

Interlude Two

Date: August 28th, 2009

Time: 1:22 AM

Location: LAX International Airport

For a few hours after the two of them had left, the hallway was empty. Then the dead body of Roger Dain had a friend, albeit a small one.

A small moth fluttered down, out of the ventilation grill overhead. It danced around in the pale red light of the emergency floodlights, and landed on his forehead.

It fluttered off, landing on the floor, and it doubled in size. Then it doubled again, and then again, its features rapidly loosing distinction and melding into a pink mass.

The mass formed two arms, two legs, and a head. The face was perfect - chiseled chin, closely buzzed hair, blue eyes. The rest of his body was muscular and taut, covered in a blue and gray bodysuit that in turn was covered in dozens of patches. One read ViaSoft. Another said, "Enjoy Coke." A third declared it the considered opinion of McDonald's that you deserved a break today.

The newcomer pulled a small device out of a hip pouch. He pressed a button on the side, and a holograph lit up the air. It displayed cryptic network messages.

Satlink initialized

Searching...

Searching...

Connecting to DVS-12

Connected

The heavy-set face of a black woman appeared on the holograph. "Hello, Johnny Omni."

"Hello, Mia." He smiled.

"You're calling to give us a status update?"

"I've found their mule. He's dead."

"Hmmm. That's a problem. The client won't be pleased."

Johnny knelt, and started sifting through pockets. "It's not on him either. Don't worry. I'll find where he hid the Directive's little disc."

"Would you mind if I asked how?"

"Well - " He paused, as his wristwatch's alarm went off. "Give me a second." He closed his eyes, and the ViaSoft logo on his bodysuit melted away, replaced by a Staples-style 'easy button.'

"You're on a covert assignment. No one's going to see your endorsements."

"A contract is a contract. It just wouldn't do to upset the Staples business depot after the money they paid. But back to before. What do you know about moths?"

"They eat sweaters."

"They also have a sense of smell as far above a dog's as a dog's is above a human being's. All I have to do is OmniMorph™ into a moth, and track his scent. Easy."

"You can do that? Even in the middle of all the chaos from the earthquake?"

"I can indeed. Easy. I'll call you if there's any snags. I just wanted to, you know, touch base."

"Keep it to a minimum. I've heard rumblings that Utopian Science and Technology is sniffing around. And the Directive of course, will have local cells activated. It won't do to blow the operation after the money we've been paid, would it?"

"Nope. Don't worry. I'm a professional." He waved, and shut off the phone.

A small tendril of fabric stretched away from his bodysuit. He tickled it with a smile. It coiled around his finger.

"I'm the most professional professional that ever professed to this profession, aren't I, Euffie? Yes I am. You're just the cutest, yes you are."

He put the phone away, and then shrank back to the size and shape of a moth. He fluttered down to the end of the corridor, leaving Roger Dain alone once more.

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Date: August 27th, 2009

Time: 7:49 PM

Location: Williams High School Gymnasium

"Where the fuck is Team Tomorrow?"

The words, increasingly irate and agitated, were on everyone's lips. At a guess, William McSweeney counted a hundred and fifty people in the gymnasium; tired, sweaty, homeless and agitated. The sensation was like being in a room full of gunpowder. One little spark...

They had him positioned by the door, at his request. His left leg was broken, and in a splint fashioned from a hockey stick and someone's shirt. There weren't enough pain pills to go around, and he'd declined any. It was hardly the worst pain of his life. That honor went to... to...

He couldn't quite decide.

He looked at the phone, dead except for satellite transmission. The Directive didn't like to issue orders via it, preferring to stick to the Railroad - but sometimes you were in a country beyond the Railroad's reach, some third world backwater where a target had gone to ground. The fact that they'd transmitted primary details to him using standard encryption told him everything about the urgency of his task.

It could talk to other Directive phones. But the main message had been notarized DNR, which meant Do Not Reply. Meaning that they were trying to keep further satellite communications to a minimum, only sending out the signal to convene here, which meant that someone - possibly quite a few someones - were listening. So he kept quiet, and didn't check in on Makeem or Natalya or Cassandra or Nathan, no matter how much he wanted to.

Cassandra had come in first, living relatively close by. She'd come in with a gash on her chin that would leave a scar, which had come from shattered glass. She'd been briefed first, and sent out. Natalya had been next, suffering from a mild concussion that had resulted from her car skidding off the road, but she was insistent on pressing on. Makeem had arrived before Natalya had been dispatched, so he'd paired them off. Makeem had been lucky, hardly even bruised - but he'd borne witness to the collapse of a stacked highway, and his eyes had that haunted look that William knew too well.

Nathan had yet to report in. William had started preparing himself for the thought that maybe he never would.

One of the hard parts of policing novas was that no two were quite alike, and just because many were bulletproof didn't mean they all were. Nathan could stand up to a slug better than a normal man - he'd reportedly healed rather quickly from his encounter with Stephen Klein - but several tons of crushed rock would kill him just as dead. And even if it didn't, being tougher than normal didn't give him a way out from under a collapsed building.

Everyone just naturally expected the nova to make it through when others faltered. But of course, that wasn't the case. He tried not to dwell on it, but with a broken leg and non-existent communications network he had nothing but time on his hands.

So he was relieved when the door to the gymnasium opened, and Nathan walked through. He spied the commander immediately, and his eyes went to the broken leg.

William just nodded. "Fell on it wrong. Jesus, you look like hell."

"Gas main blew up right as I was getting out of my building, sir. It knocked me out, I'm ashamed to say."

"I suppose I can find it in me to forgive you. Sit down, Dayes."

Nathan did so, looking around. "Should we be discussing this in public? What about the safehouse?"

William brought the palms of his hands together, holding them as if in prayer. Then he tilted them, and slid them apart. He shook his head. "The building's totaled, Dayes. Sheared right in half. Gas went off. It's rubble, completely collapsed. When this is done we'll have to sift through what's left and invalidate any local intel."

"I get the impression that's not why you sent the signal."

"It's not."

"Where are the others?"

"Out. Nathan, determine for me, as best as you can, that we're alone."

Nathan nodded. His perceptions shifted down a level, and he looked around across a gymnasium that was, to him, suddenly tinted blue. A moment later, he turned back. "No quantum radiation, sir."

"You're sure?"

"I am, sir."

"Help me up into the bathroom then."

Nathan nodded, and helped William to his feet, supporting him with an arm under his armpit and William's arm around Nathan's shoulder. They hobbled to the bathroom, Nathan pushing the door open with his foot.

The door closed. The room was dark, but not for long, as William pulled out a penlight. "There's no electricity and no water. You said to me once that the same ability that lets you see traces of quantum radiation lets you see without light. I need you to inspect this place for bugs. I swept it earlier with a penlight but I want to make sure again."

"Understood." Nathan took a deep breath, and shifted his perceptions again, and he felt, more than saw, the walls and the pipes and the stalls. He felt around carefully, checking the ceiling, the stalls, and the nooks and crannies. After a minute, he nodded. "We seem clear."

"Dayes, I'm going to give you a list of locations. You'll know what some of them are. I want you to go out and check them for any drops."

"Drops?" The unspoken thought hung in the air: at a time like this?

"Directive C3I saw fit to send me the relevant details, as many as they could outside of the security of the Railroad. This is a very important drop, I'm told. A disc that was being passed along to a local intelligence cell. The cell in question has gone black. We don't know which drop they were using so we have a list of drops they might have used - "

"Shit, a list? They want us to go through the phone book - "

"I wasn't finished, agent." William's voice could freeze helium, and Nathan's protest died on his tongue. "Just after the mule was sent out, a recommendation for burn notice came through the intelligence cycle. Apparently Utopia Science and Technological Regulation has taken an interest in him."

"You think the mule turned?"

"Or he was sloppy. Either way, that tells me that the disk comes from Kuro-Tek."

Nathan nodded. He'd read his share of briefings on Kuro-Tek back when he worked intel. Kuro-Tek was the kind of ally you wish you didn't need. Their weapons and technology helped even the odds against out-of-control novas - the Banshee sonic rifle, the mental noise generator, Klot - and that meant that the Directive had an interest in keeping the prodigies at Kuro-Tek happy. Which led to a lot of hot water, because about five percent of Kuro-Tek's product were sanctioned by Utopia Science and Technology. The rest was blacktech, and Utopia Science and Technology wasn't fond of that, and Utopia in general would like nothing more than for the Directive to piss off.

"I see the problem, sir."

"Even if the disk is encoded - and if the mule thought he was being watched he might not have had time - just proving a link between Kuro-Tek and the Directive could be disastrous. Utopia would like nothing more than to see our wings clipped."

"That reminds me, sir... where - "

"Where the fuck is Team Tomorrow? I don't know. Lots of rumors flying around. They're about the only Utopians I could stand to see right about now, and even then I'm not sure."

"All right. What's the list?"

"Give me your phone."

Nathan did so, and William held it next to his for a few moments, until Nathan's phone beeped. William handed the phone back. "There's your list."

"I didn't bring my firearm, sir. It's in my apartment and my apartment is not very accessible at the moment."

"I already lent mine to Yahawei, Agent. You're going to have to find one or make do without."

"Understood."

"Help me back to the main room, please."

Nathan nodded, opening the door, and then supporting William as they hobbled out. "Transportation, sir?"

"We had two Peregrines. Agent Orange arrived first, and took one - Agents Yahawei and Sukov arrived within minutes of each other and they took the other. You may have to hoof it or nick a car."

"Understood, sir."

"I know the mission's complete shit, Agent. Feel free to complain if you want to."

"Fuck a duck, sir. We have no idea who the mule is or where the drop is or where the IntCell that went black is. Our enemies probably know what we're up to better than we do. Great job, C3I. Everyone down here appreciates you being on the ball."

"You know what C3I stands for, of course - "

"Chaos, Confusion, Cockups, and Idiocy!" they chorused, in the rehearsed tone of people who made this joke a lot.

"Right, that's enough of that. Find that disc, Dayes. Recover it, or destroy it. You're authorized to sent a satellite message when you do, but stay quiet until then."

"Understood, sir - " They went through the door of the gymnasium, and Nathan blinked, as Cassandra Orange looked at the two of them. Her orange hair was in disarray and there was a large bandage on her chin, and there was dirt on her face and her clothes. She looked tired.

"Uh - nothing so far, sir. Hi, Nathan. You look like a bomb fell on you."

"Close enough," replied Nathan.

"Well, things are looking up already," said William with a smile. "Now at least you won't be on foot."

* * *

Date: August 28th, 2009

Time: 3:31 AM

Location: Burger King #9131

The restaurant was still standing, although its windows were shattered, casting otherworldly refractions in the moonlight. Martha had a quick look inside, and frowned. "Hmmm."

"What's that?"

"The food's all gone. Looters?"

"Could be, could be..." Travis circled around the building. "The freezer truck's gone too. Could be they took the food to a local shelter."

"He ate here last night, according to the debit card receipt in his wallet."

"Two suspected drops close by." Travis looked out across the street. "One's behind that dumpster over there, and a loose brick between that music shop and that cafe' might be the other."

Martha nodded. The two of them crossed the street, towards a dull green dumpster pocked with rust. "If we know about them - "

"Then there's a good chance that the spooks don't use 'em any more. I know. We still gotta try."

They reached the dumpster. Martha kept an eye out while Travis knelt, checking behind it. "What do you think's on it, Travis?"

"Don't know. Nothin' legal, if they're bein' so sneaky about it."

"Hmmm."

Travis pulled out a small plastic bag from behind the dumpster, opening it. He wrinkled his nose. "It's not here."

"What - Jesus - " Martha covered her nose.

Travis stood up, closed the bag and tossed it back in the dumpster. "It's not here," he repeated. "Let's check out that brick."

The two of them walked in silence. The street lamps were dead, everything lit only by the moonlight. The whole city was quiet, as if hoping no one would see it if it stayed silent.

"What happens if we find this disc?" asked Martha.

"When, not if. And that all depends on what's on it. If it's something we can read, instead of one of their goddamn special encryption discs, then we got 'em - and if I was a gamblin' man then I'd say Utopia would lean on the Directive to cut ties with Kuro-Tek in exchange for keepin' quiet about this. If we can't read it then we build our case with whatever we got."

"The Directive won't like that."

"I can't say I really care, Martha." Travis rounded the corner and flipped on his flashlight, looking along the wall. "They know the law. They should know it better than we do. If they want to break the rules they claim to be defendin' then they deserve to get burned. You see anything?"

"No. Wait - yes. That one doesn't fit right."

Travis put the flashlight in his teeth, and examined the brick. He pulled out a Swiss Army knight, and pried out the blade, wedging it into the gap between the cement and the brick and using it as a makeshift crowbar.

"Out y'come... c'mon..."

The brick slid out slowly, and Travis shined the light in the hole left in the wall. He sighed, and replaced the brick.

"Nothing?"

"Nothin'. C'mon, you said that we had - "

Travis was cut off as the ground started to shake. "Oh shit."

The two of them bolted out of the alleyway into the middle of the street. Travis was thrown off his feet by the rumbling. Martha doubled back, grabbed his hand, and pulled him up, as the rumbling abated.

Travis rubbed his forehead. Martha let out a long breath. "Aftershock. It was just an aftershock. How long do they persist after the main quake?"

"I don't know, Martha." He took a few steps, not entirely trusting the ground. "This is my first."

"Mine too. Let's get back to the car, and check on the next probable location. The sooner we can find that disk the sooner we can get out of here."

"Good thinkin'. Hmm." He stared up at the sky as he walked, momentarily lost in a thought that he gave a voice to.

"Wonder where the fuck Team Tomorrow is."

* * *

Date: August 28th, 2009

Time: 5:19 AM

Location: Somewhere in Los Angeles

If asked, he would describe the experience as having your optic nerves rewired into your nose.

It was a lie - but it was the closest he could get to describing it, since he wasn't that great at metaphor. It was more like time had been stretched beyond just the present and into the past, and married to the wind, where every gust of air changed the way you perceived the world.

Roger Dain's scent was strong. He'd had no trouble picking it up after the disruptions at the airport, finding which cab it intermingled with, and following that for as far as it would take him until he smelt Roger Dain again. For the easy parts, he assumed the shape of a dog, and used the increased speed to his advantage. He was doing this now, sniffing along the ground.

Euffie was in the shape of a dog collar. She sometimes got upset when she merged with him physically during the act of OmniMorphing™, so he didn't do it often, and he'd promised to make up for the time he'd turned into a moth. It seemed to have settled her down, and she sat there, content.

He passed an alleyway that had a man slumped against a wall, who smelt of... well, a lot of things. He was dressed in old, soiled coats and clothes, the mark of someone without a roof over their head - or, the way things were right now, someone who'd been living that way for quite some time. He stopped, and turned. Inside, he grinned. Why not?

"Awaken, mortal."

"Hmwuh?"

The man's eyes slid open, and looked at the dog. "Hh."

"Awaken, mortal!"

"Jesus shit!" The man nearly leapt out of his skin. "What - what - "

"Hear me, mortal. Hear my voice!"

"Who - are you God?"

"No! I am Dog. (Shut up Euffie that was funny.) I am sent here to deliver an important message to you.."

"I gotta lay off the sauce - "

"The message is this: do what the voices say."

The man blinked. "You - you know about them?"

"I know all! I see all! I smell all! I am Dog and this is my pronouncement! Do whatever the voices tell you to, for their words are my own. That is all."

Johnny padded off. The man looked at him, shook his head, and withdrew back into the alleyway.

If he'd followed, he might have been treated to the sight of a dog arguing with its own collar before OmniMorphing™ into a moth. But he was too busy trying to decipher the word of Dog.

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Date: August 28th, 2009

Time: 10:01 AM

Location: Central Los Angeles, 200 Feet Up

"You know what I love about this job, Nathan?"

Nathan gripped the door handle to the vehicle intensely, staring straight ahead, as Cassandra piloted the Peregrine, skillfully manipulating jets and turbofans to keep the ride steady, more or less.

"I could guess..."

"Toys like this. Here we are in a flying car. We get intelligence by bouncing a laser off a pane of glass. My celphone's more powerful than most people's home computers. This is the good part."

"If you say so..."

"You sound nervous. Don't like my driving?"

"I - what? No! No, you're a great driver - "

"You're beat red." She laughed. "Relax, I'm just teasing."

"No, I just hate flying in these things. I realize we need them for the job, but..." He sighed, and shook his head. "I don't like flying that much, period."

"Didn't you fly a couple of times before, when you were doing that mirroring thing you do?"

"A couple. I didn't like, but I still did it. Just like now." He forced himself to relinquish his grip on the door. "I don't know if I'm making sense, I kind of got hit in the head - "

"No, I get you. I don't like pointing a gun at people either but I still do it too. It's the job."

"Yep. It's the job." Nathan looked out the window for a long moment, and shook his head. "It looks like hell out there."

"I know. I hate not being able to use the satlinks. I don't see the Red Cross, or FEMA, or Utopia... maybe this is bigger than just L.A. Maybe it's hit everyone all over."

"You think it could be nationwide? Or - "

"Or planet wide? It could be. That's the thing with novas. It always 'could be.' ... no offense."

"None taken."

They sat in silence for a few moments, then Nathan spoke again. "You know? I think flying our emergency Peregrine cars isn't the only part of this job you love."

"Oh yeah? What else do I love?"

"You love it when we put a target behind the eight ball. You don't love the physical take downs that much - but you love it when we've tied a target's hands behind their backs. I noticed it a bit with James Baron - you were disappointed you didn't get to do much about him and the Sting case. You like... what's the word. The social management. Outwitting them. Coming at the target from an angle they don't think about."

"Hmm." She piloted in silence for a moment, then smiled. "Guilty as charged. While we're on the subject of 'things I've noticed about my fellow Sundial agents...'"

"Yes?"

"I can't help but notice you use the word 'target' instead of 'nova.'"

Nathan paused for a moment, working out his response in his mind. "Well... it's more accurate - "

"It is. But nearly all our targets are novas, and those that aren't are affiliated with them. For us it's interchangeable. But it's not the same thing for you, of course. You put that little correction in there. You like to point out that not all novas belong in our sights. Because if it's baselines versus novas then it's all of us against one of you."

Nathan nodded, slowly. "That sounds about right."

"You're not the only one who can put together a profile, Nathan." She smiled at him. "But relax. As far as I'm concerned, it's just us versus the bastards. The bastards deserve what they get, and we give 'em what they deserve. If you give 'em just as hard as we do, great."

"Trust me. One thing they taught me at the City was how to give something everything I had." Nathan peered out the window. "Hey, there's the metroplex."

The Peregrine tilted right, as Nathan's stomach became unsettled. It cruised to a half, and the HUD on the windshield displayed the landing camera, a crystal-clear image of the street directly below. The Peregrines auxiliary tire set sprouted from the undercarriage, and the flying car touched down.

The doors opened, and Nathan and Cassandra stepped out. Nathan shielded his eyes from the sunlight glinting off the metroplex's glass facade - a twenty story building in the shape of a dome, with live-in apartments, office complexes, shopping and entertainment. A 'micro-arcology,' they called it. This metroplex had an occupancy of 2,500 people and the sign out front identified it as Placid View. The drop was inside, at the metroplex's post office. They didn't have the key, but they did have a lock release gun and that would be just as good.

They marched towards the building, surrounded by eerie quiet. They were the only two people on the street. There was no one stationed at the entrance hub, but a quick look inside caused them to curse in unison and then duck down low.

There was a barricade against the door, the lock already broken - chairs and bureaus and desks and anything else that was heavy, piled against it. Further inside was a man sitting quietly with a shotgun in his hand. He hadn't yet noticed them, and by the time his gaze drifted back towards the doors they had ducked out of view behind an upended leather sofa.

"I only saw one," said Cassandra. "You?"

"Only the one."

She nodded. "I've got the gun right here." She slid her coat open to reveal the revolver that they'd gotten from a gun shop while out on their errands. It only had six shots, but it was all they could get on such short notice - the gun shop owner had inflated his prices and it had taken a little jewelry from them both in addition to the emergency bribe money to secure it.

Nathan shook his head. "Bad idea."

"I know."

"No silencer. If he has buddies they'll be on us like white on rice. And legally he's in the right - the Home Shield law means he can blow us both away if we set foot inside."

"I know. Can you figure out another way inside?"

Nathan looked out into the parking lot. Then he looked back inside. "Where's the post office?"

"Not too far in."

"I have a question, then."

"Shoot. ... not literally."

"How good are you with our flying car?"

* * *

Five Minutes Later

"Jesus, I'm bored." The impromptu guard scratched his nose while shifting his grip on the shotgun. "I wish something would haWHAT THE HELL - "

The superglass that formed the exterior wall was tough. The frame that held it in place was tough too. But Nathan had looked over the entire dome-shaped facade of the building, and found the one spot that the frame was weakest, off to the left of the door and thirty feet up. The superglass panel gave way as the Peregrine rammed it. It fell to the ground, and bounced instead of shattered.

The guard stared in befuddlement as the car banked into the metroplex, heading towards the shopping center in the middle. The lights were still on - the metroplex had its own power. So the main mall strip was lit up clear as day, as the Peregrine zipped down it.

Nathan looked out the window at a toy store as it sped past. "Hmm."

"What?"

"They have a Miss Piggy."

Cassie swung right, and sent the flying car down one of the mall's branches. "Who's Miss Piggy?"

"One of the Muppets."

"I guess I don't really remember the Muppets."

"Really? Christ. I'm old."

They sped past the food court, where the tenets of the metroplex were frying up frozen food. Someone in a security uniform shouted for them to stop, in the name of the law.

"Remind me why we put a drop in a place where people are allowed to kill us?" Cassie began to slow the Peregrine down as the post office came up on their left.

"If I was gonna guess, I'd say that someone in a local IntCell lives here."

"It's a nice place to live. Lot of space in this mall. And, hang on..."

Nathan gripped the door as Cassandra tilted the Peregrine on its side, exposing the undercarriage to the rest of the mall as it cruised to a stop, neatly blocking off the door to the post office. There was the sound of scraping metal from the car's left side as momentum sent it skidding on the floor.

The sunroof popped open. Nathan undid his seatbelt and slid out through the opening. He pulled a pistol-like object out of his coat.

He hadn't kept his gun in his coat, dangerous as it was, but he did carry an emergency lockpick gun. It wasn't subtle and it would shred the lock and leave marks, but it was fast, and right now, speed was key. He advanced, quickly ticking off box codes.

Cassandra waited, fingering the pistol. She heard security shouting down the mall, and hopefully they'd get close enough to read what she and Nathan had scrawled on the underside in red letters, DO NOT FIRE OR YOU WILL HIT THE GAS TANK. It was a fuel cell Peregrine, but the flying cars were rare, and that meant they'd be uncertain, and would err on the side of caution. Hopefully.

And if they did open fire, well... there was no such way as a good way to die, so this would do just fine.

In the post office, Nathan found the drop box. He shoved the gun in hard, and pulled the trigger. There was a cracking noise, and Nathan withdrew the gun and flipped the drop open.

He took out the envelope inside. Then he swore, and turned around, running back to the car. He grabbed the frame, and swung into the sunroof feet first. He tucked himself into a crouch and grabbed the handle.

Cassandra was already righting the vehicle by the time Nathan shouted "Go!" The screen that displayed the undercarriage camera tilted, showing the mall's tiles, and Nathan looked out the window at a trio of surprised looking security guards.

They weren't fast enough to get a bead on him before Cassandra gunned the engines. The car roared down the corridor, over the heads of four or five approaching guards.

To the door guard's credit, he was ready with his shotgun this time. To his discredit, however, he was a terrible shot, missing the Peregrine as it swooped out through the opening it had made. Instead, he peppered an advertisement for Totentanz action figures with shotgun pellets.

Nathan straightened up in his seat, holding the package. Cassandra looked at it out of the corner of her eye. "Please tell me that's the disk."

"It's not. That's the bad news."

"Shit. Tell me the good news."

Nathan held up the envelope, Ed McMahon's face printed on the front. "Good news is that we may already be a winner."

Nathan's quantum-enhanced reflexes narrowly saved him from being punched in the arm.

* * *

Date: August 28th, 2009

Time: 12:29 PM

Location: Central Los Angeles

"I have to admit, Travis, this isn't what I saw myself doing when I joined the Project."

Travis grunted, heaving a chunk of brick off of the rubble the two were crouched on. Above them, half of a building had collapsed; around them, the resulting debris was strewn. They were looking for a brick that was not a brick, but a brick-encased steel capsule.

"Not quite what I had in mind, Martha. But we do the job."

"Did you start out in TechReg?"

"Recruitin', actually. I loved it, too. But the time came for a change, so I put in to TechReg 'cause I heard that the North American division was short-staffed. How 'bout you? You were in the peace keepers, right?"

"Until the friendly fire incident, yeah."

"Hmmm. I didn't know that. Didn't mean to bring it up."

"It's fine. He recovered. It's just that they suspected it wasn't an accident - or it was, but the shooter still had a motive. It just wasn't the same in my unit after that. ... is this it?"

Martha held up a brick. Travis took it, and fiddled with it, finding a hidden compartment and sliding it open.

"Anything?"

Travis shook his head, and dropped the brick. He stood carefully, so as not to cause a landslide. "Let's head back to the car. I could use a drink."

They waked back to the car, a plain white older model (though not too old.) Travis opened the door and slid in, popping open the bottled water he'd kept in the emergency road kit. He poured a cup for Martha and one for himself, then held it up. "Toast?"

"To what?"

"To eight checked drops, and only five more to go." Without waiting, Travis downed his glass. Martha nodded, and did likewise.

"I figured I'd have seen rescue crews by now." Martha looked out the window. "I wonder where they are."

"Hopefully, on their way."

"What'll we do, Travis, if we cross paths with the Directive's operatives?"

"Hmmm." Travis looked in the back seat, at the long box sitting there. "We back off is what we do."

"Even with the rifle there?"

"Especially with the rifle there. That's just a tranquilizer rifle. The spooks are gonna have real guns, and we're not authorized to shoot at any of 'em with a real one. No, we back off. You win some an' lose some."

"As if we didn't have enough problems."

"Ha. As if." Travis turned the key, and the car sped onwards.

They were in a part of town with few stacked overpasses and bridges, so the roads were relatively clear. It wouldn't last, but neither of them wanted to go on foot. It hadn't been too long since the riots, after all, where people had been dragged out of their cars and beaten half to death.

"Travis, do you ever wonder about what we do?"

"Wonder what about it, Martha?"

"Whether or not it's right."

Travis pursed his lips. "Not a lot, no. Why? Do you?"

"More and more lately. I mean, right now we're chasing after a disk that we don't even know the contents of. All that's marked it out is who sent it and who's after it. For all we know it's some kind of new tool that they want to use to track down dangerous novas. This just seems like a waste of time, is all."

"It seems like it, doesn't it? But you have to look closer. No, whatever Kuro-Tek put in that disk is probably something that the Directive'll do well by, but gettin' that disk'll give us leverage on both the Directive and Kuro-Tek. And while this thing might be an innocent piece of blacktech, I guarantee that Kuro-Tek doesn't stick to stuff like this. You remember that diet pill they came up with last year?"

Martha recalled the reports that had circulated though the office, and nodded. "I remember. The digestion blocker."

"Except in a few cases it blocked too much and people started starving to death. Not enough testing, no FDA approval, and they snuck it onto the gray market anyway. No, I'm not gonna cry for Kuro-Tek, or anyone else like 'em. They'd love it if all federal regulation vanished, or at least the regulations they don't like. They love technological decentralization, movin' all their manufacturin' to a country that's okay with a drug that makes you starve to death. That's why Utopia has us. It's a global village, or so they keep sayin'. It needs global sheriffs."

"I know. It just seems like most of the time we're just doing things that are... petty. Going after things that there's good arguments in favor of."

"Let me put it this way. The DEA in this country gets called a lotta names and they deserve a few. I think pot should be legalized myself, though I'll deny it if you quote that to our superior. But I'm not gonna fault the idea that some drugs are dangerous, like say an untested diet pill, an' that the people who make an' sell them are dangerous an' that law enforcement ought to do somethin' about it. There was a drug on the streets here in LA that I heard about, called Sting. Nova-derived - a lot of these things are - using blacktech refinement processes. No one cried too hard when the operation went south. An' no one faulted LALE Vice and the DEA when they shut it down. Our job's like that, only about five times as hard, against something about ten times as likely to fuck things up. At least a vial of Sting's only gonna destroy your city a little bit at a time. An untested mini-fusion reactor'll do it a lot faster."

"I remember hearing about Sting, actually..."

"Yeah?"

"Yeah. There were rumors that the Directive leaned on the source and got him to stop supplying."

"Mmm." Travis nodded. "I heard the same thing."

"So okay, maybe Kuro-Tek deserves to go down. What about the Directive? Aren't we basically on the same side?"

"I don't hate the Directive the way I hate blacktech outfits, no. It's more like - "

Travis was interrupted by the sound of a wall being smashed in.

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Ten Minutes Earlier

"This is a bad idea, Nathan."

The Peregrine had landed in the parking lot of a YMCA, that was still standing even after the earthquake. Cassie was still in the pilot's seat, looking worried. Nathan just looked determined.

"It's not a bad idea, Cassie."

"It's risky."

"Risky doesn't mean bad. You know that. Look - " He turned to her. "I know what I saw. That brick at the last drop? It wasn't set right. Someone opened it and didn't put it back properly. Someone else is checking the drops. Do you agree?"

Cassie nodded, feeling a bit scolded. It was easy to forget that even though Nathan blushed when you flirted with him and he sometimes mistimed his jokes, his mind was wired up differently. He noticed things like a brick's slightly skewed position that hardly anyone else would. "Okay. I agree."

"The bank's over there, the YMCA is here. We can split up and check them both. Take about five minutes."

"You said it yourself. Someone else could be checking the drops. Two of us'll be safer than one."

"I know. But if someone else is checking the drops then we have to speed up. I know it's risky. This whole damn operation is risky. Forget the left hand not knowing what the right is doing, this is the left hand not knowing where the left arm is putting it. I just - shit. I don't want to tell the commander we didn't find the disk. I think I'd take death over that."

Cassie nodded. "Me too."

"So take the gun."

Cassandra didn't say anything. Nathan closed his eyes. She can be so smart sometimes - she can surprise even me - and sometimes she can be so God Damned stupid...

"I'm a nova. I can survive a bullet better than you. I can dodge a bullet. It'll be better if you carry it."

"You can shoot straighter than me, though. It'll be better if you carry it."

"Let me put it this way, Cassie. If you give me the gun, I'll put it on the hood of this car and walk away without it. Take the gun."

She scowled at him, and shook her head. "Fine. I'll take the gun. Back here in ten."

Nathan nodded, and opened the door. He walked across the parking lot, not looking back as he heard the Peregrine's motors cycle up and lift off. She can be so... damned...

Was she worried about me?

Was I worried about her?

No, no. Keep your mind on the job. Be professional.

The YMCA was deserted. Its power was out , so Nathan reached into his pocket and pulled out a flashlight. He pulled open the door, holding the flashlight up. The beam cut through dusty darkness, showing the receptionist area, a stand with flyers stuffed into it, and a bank of the first-floor exercise equipment behind cracked glass. There was a seam running along one of the walls - the building wasn't as stable as it looked.

He looked around for the stairwell that led to the basement. After a moment, he found it. He opened the door and descended.

"Hm, hm, hm, hm, hm, it's fun to stay at the Whyyyyy-M-C-A..."

It was amazing, Nathan thought, at how a tune would get stuck in your head, even one recorded before you were born. Granted, the cover that Alejandra had done was what he remembered more, but still. He had a vague memory of cops and construction workers doing calisthenics on stage, even though he couldn't pin down where he'd seen it.

He descended to the locker room. He didn't have the key, but he did have the lock release gun. He counted the lockers, and swatted as a moth buzzed around his light. "182... 183... 184... 185. Okay..."

He slid the lockpick gun into the locker, and pulled the trigger. The locker opened, and Nathan's eyebrows shot up.

"Yes, yes, yes, yes, yes! Hell yeah." Nathan grabbed the package, a small optical disk about an inch and a half in diameter, inside a clear plastic case. He held the flashlight up to it. It wasn't marked and there was no note attached, but this was almost certainly the disk.

He set the flashlight down on the floor of the locker hastily, and stuffed the disk into his coat. He turned away from the locker for a moment and pulled out his phone, thinking for a moment, then decided it would be better to signal once the disk was a confirmed OTD.

He turned back to the flashlight, as it gently rolled out of the locker and hit the floor. The bulb shattered.

"Oh, just fuck my nipples."

There was a backup bulb in the base of the flashlight. Muttering to himself, he relaxed, and forces his senses to shift, bypassing light and sound and perceiving the environment on a purely quantum level.

Everything became clear again. He bent over to grab the flashlight, and stopped. He stared at the moth that was buzzing around him, a moth that from his perspective was glowing bright blue.

Nathan looked closer. The moth was suffused in energy he couldn't quite comprehend. The way it felt... it dredged up a memory of a Christmas morning playing with Lego, his young mind realizing with growing joy that what he had could be put together in just about any shape. Cars, robots, a house, a castle, any shape.

It's full of Lego energy. Energy that can make it any shape.

His adult mind realized with growing horror, that the moth was staring back at him.

He reacted quickly, bolting for the door. He vaulted over a bench as he made his way for the hallway and the stairwell. There was a blast of displaced air, and a roar that shook the walls.

He didn't glance back as he crashed through the door, or when he heard claws skidding on the tile. But he could guess at what was there. A cat? Is it Kara? No, Agent B'nath only turns into cats..

He went into a flat-out run down the hallway. He grabbed for the stairwell door and pulled it open. He ducked inside - or tried to, as the lion slammed into the door as he was partway through, bashing him in the arm.

"Ahh, fuck, fuck - " Nathan pulled his arm free, scapping a layer of skin off as the lion's jaws snapped around where his hand had been a moment before. The lion peered at him through the door's inset window and began to shift shape again. He didn't stay to watch - he took the stairs five at a time.

He burst out into the lobby and ran flat out for the door. The door behind him didn't have time to close before it was bashed open. Whatever it was slammed into him from behind, sending him sprawling. He skidded along the floor and hit the wall.

He looked at the shape his pursuer was in now, a great ape. It had a collar on, and was talking to it. "So who's this, Euffie? Someone else had the same idea we did?"

'Euffie?' Oh, Christ. It's Johnny Omni.

Nathan was familiar with Johnny Omni. He was on DeVries' watch list for superhumans who could charitably be described as 'eccentric' and uncharitably described as 'barking shitfuck insane.' In Johnny's case, he was convinced that his eufiber suit was sentient and that it could understand him when he talked to it. No one bothered to call him out on it because Johnny was a shapeshifter and matter chameleon - able to turn into just about anything, or as Johnny put it, OmniMorph™ - and he was useful for a wide variety of assignments.

Nathan watched as the gorilla lumbered closer. "I'll be taking that, thanks bunches."

So someone else IS after the disk. Hired through DeVries. Omni must have just flown right in as a bird or something. Come on then, Johnny. Get close enough to touch.

Nathan concentrated, sending a packet of charged quantum energy into his clothes, his gear, and the disk in his pocket. The gorilla hoisted him up, and started rooting through his pockets.

He grabbed the gorilla's wrist, and a tingle shot through his skin. He felt the node in his head realign, mirroring Johnny's power. Suddenly the Lego energy was his, and he knew just what to do with it.

Nathan shifted shape, pushing the gorilla back. His clothing and gear disappeared, replaced by thick gray hide. He fell to all fours, and a horn protruded from his growing head.

The gorilla had the world's most priceless look on its face, as Nathan the rhino lined up his charge with the seam in the wall he'd noted earlier.

"OmniMorph™ this, motherfucker."

Nathan charged.

* * *

"Martha?"

"On it."

Martha reached in the back of the car, and grabbed the rifle. She began loading the cartridge marked 'M.'

* * *

The rubble sprayed everywhere, as the two of them burst through the side of the wall. Nathan stumbled, unused to the power, and fell, and momentum carried the gorilla away from him.

Nathan returned to normal, struggling to stand. He coughed, concrete dust in his lungs. He looked over at Johnny Omni, who had reverted to his normal form, a man in a eufiber leotard stamped with product endorsements.

It couldn't be that easy.

Nathan reached down, and picked up a chunk of concrete. He hefted it over his head, and walked towards Omni.

I should interrogate him first.

No. I don't have eufreeze or mox or any weapons. He's too dangerous. Just hit him in the head.

I should just run.

Except that he found a way to track the disk to the YMCA. He might do it again. I shouldn't take the risk.

Christ. He's out cold. I - the others shot Stephen Klein. Aaron Blisney was instinct, self-defense. I never killed a man in cold blood like this.

I have to. He tried to kill me. If he gets the disk then God knows who'll get whatever's on it. Just drop the brick. Drop the brick.

Nathan let out a breath.

Drop the brick and he dies. Yeah. Point of no return there, isn't it? You're scared you'll regret it, or worse, that you'll like it. And if you're a nova who likes to kill people, then what exactly is the difference between you and him? You get paid just like him. You do your job using your abilities, just like him. Really, you are just like him -

"I'm nothing like him." Nathan dropped the brick.

Instead of a wet crunch, bone meeting brick, there was a flat crack of brick meeting brick. Nathan looked down at Johnny Omni. Johnny Omni, now looking for all the world like he was made out of concrete, looked back up at him.

"Ouch?" he said, jovially.

The eufiber on his chest lunged. It grew a tendril at least a meter long, and came to a point. It stabbed Nathan right in the chest.

Nathan's body was bullet-resistant and, apparently, stab-resistant as well - it hurt, but didn't pierce his chest. He staggered back, as Omni rose, and grew, his head sprouting horns and his back sprouting wings and his hands lengthening into wicked, black claws. The twenty-foot tall concrete demon was wearing an advertisement for I Can't Believe It's Not Butter! on his chest. It grinned a sharklike grin. Nathan's eyes widened as the quantum universe flared like a supernova around Johnny.

Nathan had never seen it before, but he knew exactly what it was. Some people called it overchanneling - others, a 'powermax.' It was the art of shoving as much quantum through your node as you could possibly handle, to push yourself to your very limits. He was advised never, ever to do this because it was a sure way to give yourself quantum backlash disorder. Johnny didn't seem to have the same doctor Nathan did.

Nathan leapt backwards as Omni swiped at him with his claws. Another swipe sent Nathan dodging to the left. It took a chunk of his jacket with it. Nathan backpedaled as Omni advanced, his footfalls leaving spiderwebbed cracks in the pavement.

Try and do what he did. Asphalt. Asphalt -

Nathan reached out mentally to the ground beneath his feet. He felt the flesh of his body shift around, the energy reconfiguring every molecule. His body felt cold, and stiff, as it turned gray and hard. Omni slashed at him again, connecting his time and sending Nathan flying a good thirty feet.

Nathan landed, bouncing, and rolled into the side of a car, leaving a dent a foot deep. He groaned, standing up, glaring daggers at Omni.

"Hey, that's what I do! OmniMorphing™ is trademarked, pal. I'm gonna have to sue you after I kill ya." Johnny Omni charged him. Nathan groaned again, holding his arm.

Half a second before impact, Nathan dove between Omni's legs. Omni slammed into the car, shredding metal and scattering glass. Nathan rolled onto his feet, shedding the heavy asphalt and making a run for it.

Omni pulled himself free of the wreckage. He picked up a car door and threw it like a discus. It hit Nathan square on, sending him sprawling. He struggled onto his hands and knees, the wind knocked out of him, his vision swimming.

Come on, Nathan. Turn into whatever he's turned into. You can outfight an idiot like this...

But he couldn't. The energy was slippery, elusive. He could manage the matter mimicry or a few basic shapes, but nothing like the monstrosity Johnny had become. Not without overchanneling...

Omni grabbed him, hoisting him up. Nathan struggled in vain inside Omni's grip. "That IS my power, isn't it? You copied it somehow. Awesome. That's a trick I never figured out." A tendril of eufiber stretched out, sharpening to a point, and it slithered towards Nathan. "Oh, Euffie wants a word with you too. She's very mad about you trying to, you know, kill us."

Euffie? Euffie. Eufiber. Nathan's vision focused on the tendril, which had developed barbs all along it. Eufiber...

This is a bad idea. But if it's as flexible as it looks...

Nathan grabbed the tendril, squeezing tight. He felt one of the barbs puncture his hand, and blood started seeping out. He gritted his teeth, and used Johnny's power.

It was like having a sun shoved into his brain. Everything went white. He felt his entire body give way, no longer held together by bones or muscles. It was like having his quantum senses cranked up to eleven, and then up to twelve. Everything around him was energy, connected in a fractal lattice - Omni, him, the ground, the air, the radiowaves in the air, the minute aftershocks in the ground, everything.

Omni shouted something. Nathan couldn't make it out. He felt like he was losing cohesion, a teardrop in an ocean. Whatever made him 'him' was so thin and so fragile before it all, and it was pulling at him, pulling in a thousand directions, and there were noises out there, noises without sounds, and words without meaning, and... and...

He shed the eufiber form. He felt a sickening feeling his stomach as his body reverted to normal, the sensation that it didn't want to let him change back. He looked up at Omni, having an argument with his eufiber, which was suddenly thrashing around on its own.

Dear God, what IS that stuff?

"What is it, Euffie? What did he do to you?"

Nathan struggled to stand. Omni noticed him, and growled. "You hurt Euffie, you son of a bitch!"

Omni's backhand was too fast for Nathan to dodge. It smacked into him like a car. He'd raised his left arm on instinct - it broke, along with his shoulder, as he went flying straight up. He rolled his head in midair, feeling queasy.

He tried to focus, but the pain in his arm and his shoulder was incredible. He reached the apex and began to fall, the air rushing past him - the air -

Air.

Nathan vanished. Omni blinked for a few seconds. "Where'd he go? Can that fucker teleport? ... shit, he's still got the disk! They'll kill me... dammit!" He looked around frantically.

Nathan, having taken on the properties of the air all around them, floated in place, invisible, uncertain. Jesus, is this odd. I can still feel my shoulder but it's just air now. There's nothing to break but it's still broken - Christ - it hurts -

If Johnny Dimbulb here spots the Peregrine he'll tear both Cass and me apart. I need to put him down before the rendezvous. So let me think...

Nathan watched the demonic form as it looked this way and that, jumping at everything. He was shaky, breathing hard, and nervous, and his guard was down, and Nathan suddenly had a solution.

Slowly he drifted closer to the car that Johnny had thrown him into. He resolidifed, ducking down behind it, and examining the rear of the vehicle. It was a hybercombustion model, and that would work for what he had in mind.

He tore a strip off his shirt with his good arm, and opened the gas tank's lid, then unscrewed the cap. He dipped the strip of cloth inside, then pulled it out. It was wet and smelt sharply. He laid it on the ground, them fumbled for his Swiss Army knife. There were a lot of different uses packed into the knife, and the one he awkwardly struggled to pull free was the miniature butane lighter. The ability to start a fire came in handy in his line of work.

He lit the strip. There was a dull 'fwoomf' noise and Nathan worried that Johnny Omni would overhear. He didn't, however. The smoke turned black as it started to burn away at the asphalt. Nathan covered his mouth, sucked in a breath and pushed his hand into the fire.

There was pain for a brief moment, then it was gone. Nathan used Omni's power, and satisfied, he crawled along the ground, at a height never higher than an inch, being careful in the pocked terrain to stay out of Johnny's field of view. Carefully, he snuck up behind the towering nova, and waited for just the right moment.

Johnny Omni, despite being a demon and despite being made of concrete, still needed to breathe. So when Nathan, made of black oily smoke, poured himself into Johnny's lungs, it was the one thing Johnny wasn't ready for.

Nathan couldn't see inside of Omni's lungs, but he could feel Omni thrashing around and coughing, with less and less enthusiasm as the minutes wore on. Nathan held firm, feeling a headache that he knew was an indicator that his internal reserves were running low. Nathan felt a sudden claustrophobia as he realized that he was running out of quantum energy, and the thought of reverting to normal inside of Omni's lungs made his stomach turn. He forced himself out of Omni's nostrils, and solidified, collapsing on the ground and panting heavily, still smelling sharply of smoke.

Slowly, Nathan stood, shakily. He looked down at Johnny, and gave him a nudge in the ribs. Tell me he's down because that took everything I had. Tell me he's down.

Johnny didn't move. Nathan relaxed, and turned his attentions towards the direction of the rendezvous point. He started to walk, and then there was a dull thump.

He blinked, and there was a tinkling noise, and a wetness in his chest. He looked down, at the dozen or so cylindrical devices scattered on the pavement in front of him.

He recognized them immediately. They were drug flechette darts, cutting-edge non-lethal weaponry. They'd hit him smack in the chest, and the wetness came from the pressure nozzles on the end of each one. He felt sluggish suddenly, like everything in him was tied to lead weights. He realized what he'd been dosed with.

He looked up. About a hundred feet away, a woman was kneeling, rifle in hand. Next to her was a tall man with sandy blond hair.

Idiot. I'm an idiot. I got so fixated on Johnny, I didn't even - I'll kill them -

Nathan broke into a run. He could see the looks on their faces - they'd see what he could do, and they were scared. He didn't care, though - they'd shot him and he'd had the mother of all bad days and it was just their shit luck.

To their credit, thy didn't flinch. The man helped the woman reload the rifle. They were efficient, too - not Directive efficient, but good. By the time he'd made it there halfway, she'd fired again.

It was overkill and she needn't have bothered. Mixed in with the moxinoquantamine had been an elephant tranquilizer. His body was struggling to metabolize it and not doing well. He faltered, and was unable to dodge the second flechette which smacked him in the wounded shoulder and knocked him off his feet.

Get up. Get up. Get up. He screamed at his body to do what it was told, but it was stubborn and refused to budge. He heard the two of them walk up, and rolled his head to get a better look.

The man knelt in front of him. "I recognize that other doofus from the commercial where he turns into a woman's lacy unmentionables but I don't recognize you. What's your name, buddy?"

"Andre Corbin."

"Cute. You okay, Martha? That was a hell of a good shot."

"I'm fine, Travis. Just nerves." Martha made eye contact with Nathan. "He's not dangerous, is he?"

"With that much gunk in him? Should be fine. Also, his arm's a mess so if he gives you shit just twist it. Hold him steady, I think he's got something we want."

Martha nodded, and rested her hands on Nathan's wounded arm. Nathan spoke up. "You two get away from me. You just walk away and I'll forget about you shooting me. Scout's honor."

"Well, I can't bring scout's honor back to my boss, mister..." Travis opened Nathan's wallet. "Nathan Dayes. I think we'll be takin' that disc I bet you've got, instead."

"Pretty well-armed for a couple of thieves..."

"Utopian Science and Technological Regulation, Mister Dayes. Ah, here we go." Travis held up the disc, and nodded. "Something tells me you're a Directive spook. A nova, too. That's got to be an interestin' job..."

Nathan tried to grab for the disc, but Martha was ready. Pain exploded through his shoulder and his arm as she twisted it. "Ahhh fuck fuck Jesus fuck you I will fucking kill you - "

"Just stay down, Mister Dayes." Martha's voice was level as she held his arm. "Don't make this harder than it has to be."

Nathan thrashed in place, trying desperately to turn into a snake or a bear or asphalt, anything - but the moxionquantamine was like a lead blanket thrown over his powers. Travis put a hand on Nathan's chest, holding him down. "Stay put, Mister Dayes. We're not gonna kill you."

"I sure as fuck am gonna kill you - "

"I look scared, Dayes?" Travis leaned forwards, his face inches from Nathan's. "That's your only trick, isn't it? Fear. It's just about all you know, runnin' around so scared of what people with superpowers can do. I was talkin' to Martha just a few minutes ago about what I can't stand about the boys in blue berets. This is it, right here. You're so scared of novas that you run around tryin' to keep things from gettin' worse, never thinking for a moment what would happen if things could get better. All that power you have an' let me guess, all they have you doin' is takin' out other novas, like a gun that thinks. Am I right?"

"Get the fuck out of my face - "

"I am right. And you're no different from any other spook. Well, that's not Martha and that's not me. We want to make things better, rather than just keepin' things from gettin' worse. You probably consider yourself a tough guy, right? Grew up on James Bond movies, bouncin' on your daddy's knee. Too big a badass to use a word like 'hope.' Not me. I've got hope. I have great big stinkin' globs of hope for everything and everyone. And this - " He held up the disc. "Is gonna help us clear out the technological black market, and keep dangerous drugs and technology away from people who'd get hurt by it, and bit by bit it's gonna make things better. Now hold still, Mister Dayes, because we're gonna load you into our car an' drop you off at an aid station. You give us any shit an' we'll shoot you full of more mox - "

Nathan smiled. "I could kiss you."

Travis blinked. "... well, good for you, but I ain't that kinda guy - "

"Not you."

Travis and Martha both looked up. Martha let go of Nathan's arm and grabbed at the rifle. Travis stood up slowly, and squinted. "'Do not fire or you will hit the gas tank?'"

The Peregrine hovered in place, fifteen feet above the street. The window rolled down, and Cassandra Orange pointed her gun through it. "Freeze!"

Martha had brought the rifle to bear. "Drop the weapon and get out of the vehicle!"

"You drop the weapon, missy! And step away from that man! Do it!" Cassandra kept her gun trained between the two of them - as far up as she was, they'd each think it was pointed at them.

"Hi, Agent Orange." Nathan said weakly. "Martha, do what Agent Orange says."

"Why would I do that then, Mister Dayes?"

"Because you just assured me that you weren't going to kill me. Which means deadly force isn't authorized for you, hence the tranquilizer rifle - which is still loaded with moxinoquantamine. You hit her with that, she'll go into toxic shock and die."

Martha exchanged looks with Travis, who nodded. "They got us there, Martha."

Martha dropped the rifle on the ground. Cassandra called out. "Dayes! You okay?"

"Whistling fucking dixie, Orange."

"Sir, put the disc on the ground and step away."

Travis pursed his lips. "God Damn. This has been one hell of a day."

"Do it! Under order of the Directive! Do it now!"

Travis took the disc in both hands, never breaking eye contact with Cassandra. "Mind if I ask what's on it?"

"None of your damn business, sir. That's Directive property. Hand it over and no one gets hurt."

Travis kept his gaze on Cassandra. He pursed his lips, deep in thought. "We're with Utopia Science and Technological Regulation, ma'am. That mean anything to you?"

"Yes, it means you're the idiots chasing after unregistered video game systems and cellular telephones while we bust our asses taking down people who can blow up buildings. I'm not impressed."

"Nevertheless. I have to ask first. We have evidence that the contents of this disc break technological regulation laws, agreed upon by the United Nations and the members of the security council. Are you going to let us examine its contents?"

Cassandra shook his head. "Place it on the ground. Now."

Travis nodded. He snapped the disc in half, and let it go. It tumbled to the ground, both halves bouncing.

Cassandra's eyes went wide. "You - get down on the ground! Get down on the ground now, both of you!"

Travis shook his head. "If you're gonna shoot us, do it while we're on our feet."

Martha looked to Travis, pale. "What?"

"They're not gonna arrest us because then the authorities'll have to ask us why. The whole story'll come out and they know Utopia's got better PR than they do. So she can either shoot us or let us go. You didn't do anythin' - "

"She shot me," groaned Nathan.

"All right, but you'll live. But fair enough. You really wanna shoot us? 'Cause all four of us can just walk away right now. No dirt on anyone's face. You pull the trigger and I'll be dead, sure. Then you'll have to kill Martha 'cause she'll be a witness. Then you'll have to hide the bodies an' there'll be two missing TechReg agents that were supposed to be chasing after the Directive and hmm, wonder where they went. You want to escalate things, you want to make things worse between our people an' your people, you want more folks dead on a day like today, then just squeeze that gun, ma'am. Just squeeze it."

Cassandra scowled. "Fucking goddamn - fuck - fucking - son of a - bfwughhh!" She withdrew the gun. "Go on, get out of here. Go."

Travis and Martha exchanged looks. Travis nodded. "Thanks, Miss Orange."

Martha spoke up. "Take the rifle. There's a guy named Johnny Omni back there who went after your man with a lot worse than mox."

The two of them walked off. The woman said something heated and profanity-laden to the man. Cassandra set the car down on the ground. She stepped out, looking at the shattered disc, and then at Nathan.

"How was the bank?" asked Nathan.

Cassandra shook her head, visibly shaking. "Don't ask."

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Date: August 28th, 2009

Time: 6:02 PM

Location: Former Base of Operations for Operations Cell Sundial

It was worse, sometimes, when the commander was silent.

Yelling, Nathan and Cassie could handle. Commander McSweeney had a personality that filled the room and yelling was only natural. It was when he was quiet that trouble was brewing. Quiet meant he didn't know quite what to do with you.

McSweeney was sitting on a park bench outside the collapsed building where Sundial worked, his crutches at his side and his leg in a cast. He was flanked by Natalya and Makeem, both of whom were exhausted and looking mildly upset. It was hard to blame them when they'd spent so much time chasing down drops only to have it all get bungled by Agents Dayes and Orange.

The building was a wreck. Later on they'd have to go through it and make sure all hard drives were unreadable and all hard copies were burnt. William had already been in touch via satlink with C3I to confirm the disc's destruction and requesting further instructions. They'd given him a notice to stand by and he'd done so.

They'd dumped Omni off at an aid station after injecting him with the remaining moxinoquantamine. Everyone fawned over Johnny Omni, so no one took note of the woman who'd brought him in. A few minutes later Nathan had gone in, having his injuries looked at and his broken bones set. He'd slipped out quietly afterwards. Despite his injuries, he stood in front of the bench to give his report, since McSweeney had told him that he knew he had a heightened tolerance for pain and he could bloody well stand there and tolerate it while relating the story of his fuck-up. Cassandra stood beside him, silent for the moment.

McSweeney finally spoke. "Did you interrogate John Fraiser?"

The commander had a quirk that was common in the Directive. If possible, he never used a nova's codename, always referring to them by their birth name if they knew it. It was a way of keeping the superhuman a little more human in his eyes. John Fraiser was Johnny Omni's real name, and Nathan and Cassandra both felt a slight stab of guilt over calling him Johnny Omni in their reports.

"No, sir. He was unconscious. It was an unsecured location, and Nathan was injured. I decided it was too risky to interrogate him."

"What about killing him? That too risky as well?"

Cassie hesitated, but only a moment. "If we'd killed him, it would cause a stir. An even bigger one that killing two TechReg agents."

"And you let those two get away with destroying our drop because...?"

"Because they'd already destroyed it. Killing them wouldn't put the disk back together. It wouldn't solve our problem and it'd just create new ones."

"You confirm all this, Dayes?"

"Yes, sir."

"Sukov, Yahawei. Any thoughts?"

Makeem shook his head. Natalya spoke. "At the least, the disc did not fall into anyone else's hands. That was a fallback objective."

"That it was." William sighed. "I'm not saying you did the right thing. I imagine it'll take time to carve alternative channels with Kuro-Tek. Time in which the contents of the disc will not be used, no matter how badly we might have needed them. But I'm not saying you did the wrong thing, either. This was a shit mission from the beginning. I'm frankly offended at the lack of support C3I has given us. At the least, the disc was destroyed and Utopia has nothing on us. Dayes, a question."

"Yes, sir?"

"Fraiser is an Elite. Did he mention who he was working for?"

"No, sir."

"Well, that's about par for this course. Have a seat. We have to plan a - hmmm."

William looked up, as did the other four. Makeem was the first to smile at the sight of the white, blue and gold-colored flying cars that crossed the skies, red crosses on the side and a familiar logo on the front.

"Well," said William. "That answers where the fuck Team Tomorrow is."

* * *

Date: August 31st, 2009

Epilogue One

The thick door was made of pseudo-wood - Vella, they called it - and was physically indistinguishable from normal wood, and 98% recyclable. All the doors in the office were made of the same substance. It had been created by Utopia Materials Engineering. It was symbolic - every time a door in a Utopia building opened, it was a reminder of one more tree that wouldn't be cut down.

It opened now. Martha exited, and nodded to Travis, who was waiting on the bench. Travis stood, and nodded back. "How'd they take it?"

"Well enough, I guess. We still have our jobs, anyways. They'd be happier if we had the disc, since whatever was on it is just going to get passed to the Directive some other way."

"Not right away. Gives us a little more time to get Kuro-Tek dead to rights. Not an unqualified win, but.... hell, I'll take it." Travis blew out through his lips, screwing up a little courage. "You still mad at me?"

"Why would I be?"

"Because you called me a cocksucker on account of me breakin' that disc. Said it was the stupidest thing you'd ever lived through. You said I coulda gotten you killed."

"Yeah, I did say all of that, didn't I? But I was just stressed and pissed off. I thought about it. I have to ask, why'd you do it?"

"If she wanted to shoot us, she'd have pulled the trigger right away. That told me she didn't really want to, for whatever reason. At the worst, she'd have shot me, but I didn't think she would do that either. An' I admit, it was a hell of a risk. Maybe too much of one."

"The whole job was risky. No support, running around a ruined city with a tranquilizer gun because we're not allowed to actually shoot anyone. We saw two novas kicking the shit out of each other, Travis. I was terrified that one of them would throw a car at us."

"Omni, sure. That red-haired fella... I dunno about him. Someone taught him to fight smart."

"Well, whatever - anyway. I told you about the friendly fire incident in my unit in Peacekeeping, just before we heard the two of them crash through the side of a building. About how it just hit the armor, no one was hurt, but everyone thought it was on purpose?"

"Yeah."

"Well, it was an accident. I'm sure of it. The guy who got hit and the guy who did the shooting argued a lot but they would never take it further than that. But everyone treated it like he had a vendetta and really, it was just a mistake. The kind of thing that happens when you're out there, because that's just what it's like. Yeah, it was risky. So was going after it in the first place. So was running around the city in the state it was in. I was just pissed off because of the stress, and I didn't mean it."

"I know you didn't."

"Thanks." Martha shifted posture, a bit more relaxed. "Thank God they finally sorted out that problem with Utopia and FEMA."

"Yeah. Seemed to be the week for all-out clusterfucks. But I'm glad our end of it's done." Travis checked his watch. "You up for lunch?"

* * *

Date: August 31st, 2009

Epilogue Two

"Don't you look happy."

Nathan looked up at William, who smiled at him. He sat down next to him on the bench, setting his crutches aside. The bench overlooked the former home of OpCell Codename Sundial. It was currently being picked through by Natalya, Cassandra and Makeem, with carefully sorted wheelbarrows for bricks, hard drives, optical media and paper. Nathan, since his arm was in a cast, was sitting it out. So was William on account of his leg. Despite this, and despite William's greeting, he wasn't happy.

"Sorry, sir."

"Don't be. Watching other people work is one of life's joys."

Nathan shook his head. "Not for me, sir."

"I'd say you're going to give yourself an ulcer, Agent Dayes, but knowing you you'd probably use it to spit acid at people."

"I blame myself for the mission going south."

"Mmm." William watched as Cassandra held up a computer with a basketball-shaped dent in it. She began to take it apart. Natalya was sorting through the filing cabinets and Makeem was clearing away a few loose bricks.

"You don't handle failure well, do you, Dayes?"

"I - shit. Does anyone, sir?"

"Everyone there does." William waved towards the other three. "That business we had in San Francisco, a while back? Chasing our tails and getting nowhere? That's not an atypical job for us, Nathan. You came in during the Sting case, where we pulled off an unqualified win, and that might have tainted things, looking at it. Days like today are more typical. Not winning, not losing. Our progress made by a sixteenth of an inch at a time. That's the job. Get used to it."

"I just..." Nathan raised his good hand dramatically, then dropped it, exasperated. "I don't have to like it, do I?"

"No, but it'd be a good idea to learn to live with it."

"Yeah. I guess it would."

They watched the cleanup for a while. Natalya and Cassandra were having an argument over whether or not a receipt from Staples needed disposal. Makeem had set down his bricks and stopped for a cigarette.

"You shouldn't have fought John Fraiser, Dayes."

"Why not, sir?"

"You had no weapons, no backup, and worst of all, no plan. It wasn't a planned and controlled takedown, it was a schoolyard brawl. It could have gotten out of hand easily. You said that you had the power to turn both yourself and the disc into a... what was it, a coherent air pocket? He couldn't have attacked you then. You should have moved out of there."

"I thought that if Cass came back, he'd go after her."

"That's a maybe, not a yes. If signaling was important, then you knew where she was. You could have gone after her. And if you couldn't make the rendezvous, you should have gotten out of there. She knew the risks, same as you. Instead, you were injured by Omni and unable to fight the Utopians."

Nathan opened his mouth to protest, but it died on his lips. The commander was right, of course. He could have run away easily. Even if Omni had tracked him, the others could have backed him up. Why had he stuck around?

He looked over at Cassandra, pulling open a computer and fishing out the hard drive, and suddenly, it was obvious.

"It doesn't happen again, Nathan. We fight novas on our terms, not theirs."

"Yes, sir."

"For the record, Agent Orange insists it was her fault. You might want to talk to her about it." William took his crutches in hand, and struggled to stand. "I'm off for a walk."

Nathan stood, helping William with his crutches. "Mind if I ask you something, sir?"

"Ask."

"What was on the disc? And don't tell me you don't know. I know you contacted Administration yesterday asking for Railroad access."

William smiled. "Who says I'm telling you?"

"You broke your leg in the quake, sir. This - " He pointed to his cast. "This, I got chasing after the disc. I think I have a right to know."

"You think you have a right to know." McSweeny nodded. "Maybe you do. You familiar with quarks, Dayes?"

"What they covered in paraphysiology and quantum theory at the City."

"One of the things that quarks sometimes do is travel through time. Our studies, passed on to Kuro-Tek, shows commonalities in novas who have the ability to shift their senses in time and space. Precognition, ESP, that sort of thing. These commonalities tie into quarks being deliberately misplaced with the nova's powers. Using this, they came up with a device that helps 'lock' quarks in place. The end result is a sort of... time fog. When the field is up, events inside of it can't be glimpsed clearly by extranormal perception. They called it Project Mule, after something in some book by Issac Asimov."

Nathan's eyes went wide. He immediately saw the value - there were certain novas that the Directive had a strict do-not-touch policy in place for, and they inevitably had powers like this. But if there was a way to stop them from seeing you coming, then...

"Don't get too excited, Dayes. The prototype is the size of a car and only shields what's inside. It's a long ways away. Longer still, now."

"Well, all the same, sir. You can see the possibilities. It'd be - pardon the pun, but it'd be earthshaking."

"It would be. Doesn't do any good to start planning to use what we don't have, though. Now I'm off for a walk."

Nathan nodded, and watched him go. He turned back to the building and looked to Cassandra, who was taking a break.

He walked over to her, and sat down. "Slow going?"

"God, yeah. But we'll get there. Must be nice, not having to heave bricks and dig through wet papers from a burst water pipe."

"Must be nice, being able to move both your arms without your shoulder sliding out of place."

"Must be nice to be a nova." She smiled, a bit wearily. "Did you need something?"

"We've gone over the mission, the commander and I, and we came to the conclusion it was my fault."

"God! I told him, I should have fired right away - "

"I should have run, is what I should have done. Turned into an air pocket or a cheetah. But I stayed and fought, and I did it for reasons that were unprofessional."

"Unprofessional?"

"Remember our argument in the car? Over the gun? I wanted you to have it for unprofessional reasons too."

"Oh." She looked at Nathan, realization dawning. "Ohhhh."

"Yeah."

"I see."

"Yeah."

"Well, uh - long as we're coming clean - I kind of wanted you to have it for unprofessional reasons too."

Nathan blinked. "Oh. Ah."

"Yeah."

"Well, that's - this is awkward."

"Yeah."

A million thoughts in Nathan's head fought to get out of his mouth. You see, I think I have white knight's syndrome, and love to ride to a girl's rescue. You look really pretty with all the dust in your hair and that scar on your chin. I love our little games and verbal jousts. I love how you pump your fist when we get something dishy on a target. You want to come back to my place once I have a place, and get a little more unprofessional?

Nathan left it all unsaid. Cassandra spoke first. "Well, like you said. It's unprofessional. And we're professionals, aren't we?"

"We are. We're the best."

"The commander would kill us both."

"He'd try. I think we could take him."

Cassandra laughed. "Well, maybe you could."

"Pistols at dawn. If he lets me have the first seven shots I'm golden."

"Seriously, though, Nathan. It's a bad idea. Let's just let it be."

Nathan nodded, feeling a familiar sinking in his stomach. "Okay."

"You get used to it, you know. The moving around and the... the whole thing. You've been in ops less than a year. You'll get used to it."

"I probably will." I just don't want to. "Cassie, mind if I ask you something?"

"Go ahead."

"Why didn't you shoot him? I'm sure we could cover up the death. Make it look like an accident. It wasn't a Directive issued firearm. We bought it off a guy. A lot of people died recently - "

"That's just it," said Cassandra suddenly, her voice cracking. "A lot of people died. At the bank, when I went in to check the drop? There was a pair of bodies in there. They didn't die in the quake, they were fighting over a jug of water. One of them had a knife and stabbed the other guy, and the guy who was stabbed hit the guy with the knife in the head with one of those poles they keep at bank, with the ropes on them. The jug of water was lying on its side, spilt. I just couldn't shoot him, Nathan. So many people died in the earthquake. I just couldn't add one more."

Nathan felt a lump rise in his throat. "I - I didn't know."

"You couldn't have."

"I'm sorry. I shouldn't have asked."

"It's okay. I'll talk to the counselors about it. Now - " She stood. "I really should get back to it."

"Oh, sure. Sorry to keep you."

"Don't be."

She walked off. Nathan watched her go, and sighed.

It wasn't that he handled rejection poorly. He'd gotten good at that. And it wasn't a rejection so much as an acknowledgment that the job was in their way. But that was the issue, right there. It was part of the job, along with the long nights and the planning, the investigations and break-ins and the fights.

It was the job, and for the first time in a long time, Nathan found himself wishing he was back in an IntCell, where this sort of thing happened to others.

* * *

Epilogue Three

The room was decorated in a simple black and white aesthetic, white walls and black carpet, white computer on black desk. The computer was in use by the room's owner, a heavy-set man having a video conferencing call with a middle-aged woman with silver hair.

"Retrieval was unsuccessful?"

"Yes, sir."

"I see." The man leaned back in his chair, rubbing the bridge of his nose. "Was the fallback objective completed?"

"It was, in a way. After recovering, Omni returned to the scene. He found small bits of plastic not far from his fight with our mystery nova. The plastic had the scent of Roger Dain attached. They were brought in for analysis and we confirmed that the plastic shards were consistent with a lateral break. Someone broke the disc in half for him."

"Perhaps our mystery nova?"

"Perhaps, though Omni swears he behaved as if he were trying to retrieve the disc. Some other player, maybe."

"Do you have any information about the other nova?"

"Johnny Omni insists that he is some kind of 'copycat.' Claimed trademark infringement on his ability to OmniMorph™. No name, nothing from the OpNet spiders. It's almost too quiet, as if people are going out of their way to keep him hidden. No guarantees on that one."

"We'll conduct our own investigation. Thank you for your time. The fee will be deposited in full."

"Thank you, sir. Tell your client that we'll be happy to work with them in the future."

The man nodded, turning off the video conferencing. He then turned the computer off, and went to the black wall safe. He punched in a lengthly code and let it scan his eyeball, and then opened it.

Inside was a small memory plug. He withdrew it, crossed to the computer, and plugged it in the front. He turned it on, and the screen booted into an entirely different interface than ViaSoft's latest offering.

Searching...

Connecting to OpNet undernet...

Connected (secured)

He began to type.

Disc neutralized but not retrieved. Omni confirms. Money transferred from the Swiss account. Omni encountered nova opposition, possible Directive affiliation. Said nova may have the ability to copy quantum powers. More investigation required - nova appears to be 'zeroed.'

- Francis Andrews

Francis waited a few moments. Then the machine beeped, and a message displayed itself.

Acknowledged.

- Kodiak

Francis nodded, and shut down the computer. He put the key back in the safe, and went back to work.

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