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©02 The Media Desk
I had never been so tense in my life.
Falcon sent me a note through a routing system so devious I was impressed. He would meet us at what he called a bush station over a day's hike from here down the river.
I was fairly confident the message hadn't been intercepted, but I knew he would probably be followed, and that would mean we couldn't come back here.
The truck was snowed in. The snowmobile was our only way out. I packed enough supplies that we could make it to the village if things didn't work out. If things went real bad, it probably wouldn't matter either way.
"I not get taken alive." Keia said.
I was going to laugh at her, but the look in her eyes let me know she was serious.
"OK." I said.
The signals were simple. When I heard an approaching aircraft, I would fire a green flare. They would fly over once, circle, and answer with a white one.
We left two days early for the rendezvous. I had planned on driving the snow mobile down the river, but even as hard as the winter had been, the river wasn't completely frozen all the way to the outpost, treacherous thin ice and even clear water showed in places. I hugged the bank and we traveled slowly.
The first night in the tent wasn't too bad, we snuggled close against the cold. We traveled on as soon as we could to the outpost on the river. It was a solid, but weather-beaten, old building that had a Royal Canadian Mounted Police symbol pealing off the side of it.
I let us into the building carefully, it was unoccupied but showed evidence that it was used at least occasionally by whoever had business up here. Keia cooked some of our supplies on our small alcohol stove. I made what would pass for a tree stand on a small rock point that gave me a decent view of a good piece of the valley. Then we waited for whatever the next day would bring.
The sound of a small plane's engine sent me running for my perch.
The green flare arched over the river. The plane circled once and dropped down to find someplace to land.
Then a helicopter dropped in from over the mountain. I raised the rifle to my shoulder by instinct. The machine barrel-rolled and then climbed straight up.
I looked down at the river where the airplane on skis was sliding across the ice toward the half-broken dock and wondered what was going on.
Keia stood on the porch of the building with the .32 auto looking menacing in her hand. I had made her wear the bulletproof vest for the occasion.
The hunting rifle gave way to the .454, I decided that whoever was on the helicopter with Falcon was probably either a friend or so airsick they wouldn't be much of a threat as the chopper landed lightly on the ice.
Three figures in heavy coats scrambled up the bank from the plane.
Two figures got out of the helicopter, which then took off again and vanished up the river valley.
One of them was as wide as it was tall, carrying a huge trunk, it had to be Conga. The other moved with the ease of 2nd Grace.
They all stopped as they looked up at Keia holding the machine gun on them. They still hadn't seen me.
I was still back in the trees, the lead figure's chest nicely profiled in the scope on my huge revolver.
"SIGNIFY." I shouted clearly. "KABBALAH."
The second figure looked toward where I had shouted from, I moved my crosshairs to the 'Y' its zipper made on its coat. The leader didn't move. The second one shouted to me, "Sephiroth."
I had a feeling. It was. It had to be. But I wasn't taking any chances.
"Selling Organics at 350." I shouted back.
"You're a thief! Get off my port!" It called out.
"They're OK, Keia, let'm in." I shouted to her.
Keia backed into the door, but she didn't lower the gun. Something that made me very proud.
I walked out of the trees as the other two climbed the hill. Conga dropped the trunk into the snow and bear hugged me. "Boy am I glad you ain't dead." He said. He wasn't wearing more than a light jacket over his T-shirt.
"Can we get inside before I freeze?" 2ndGrace said through chattering teeth.
There was a fire starting in the buildings stone hearth. I hadn't lit one because I had been worried about being spotted. But evidently this group was confident things were secure.
Then to think about it. Falcon was probably in orbit above us with enough firepower to keep unwanted multi- level soap salespeople away.
Keia didn't relax until she recognized Conga and 2nd Grace.
The taller of the three took off his coat and worked his shoulders.
"Hello Hunter, Keia." Centre said. "Nice little out of the way place you got here." He looked around. "But I like the cabin better."
"It got raided." I said.
"I heard. Guess I won't be using it for this year's hunting trip."
The shorter of the three hung up its scarf. I recognized the profile from Keia's data.
"Hover?" I said slowly.
"Hunter." It said as it turned around.
Then I got my first major shock. Hover. Was. A. Woman.
"Hunter." The other figure said.
I knew before I looked. "Bishop."
The man's face was hidden behind a layer of prosthetic makeup and glasses. But it was him.
"Keia." The man said from behind his disguise.
"Hi Bishop." She smiled at him.
"Well now that we're all friends again, let's eat." Congo said putting the trunk on a bench.
The details of the following discussion are far too confusing to go into here. Suffice it to say
that everything that could have possibly have gone bad, did.
"But there was no leak within your organization." Hover said wiping her mouth. "Those are excellent ribs Conga."
"But why did you kill that guy at the Breaks?" I asked her.
She frowned. "Because he wasn't mine."
"Did we ever identify all the 81's?" Conga asked.
Centre shook his head. "No. We are finding more all the time."
I was clueless as to what an 81 was besides somebody with purple blood. But I didn't say anything.
The Bishop sat, and chewed ribs, and listened intently.
"And only a couple of them have been ours." Hover defended herself.
"If your organization were more open about things, we'd have known what we were up against. And if you'd kept your operation offshore, this mess would never have happened." Centre said accusingly.
"Things required a slight shift in focus. The opposition moved, I made a judgement call. It didn't exactly work out for the best." She seemed remarkably aloof, something that didn't sit right with me. "We've made amends."
"Amends." Centre said almost not believing her choice of words.
"You have the data on the known 81's on the continent. We have agreed to pull back out. The NSA is being debugged. Things will get back to normal."
"How many agents paid for your call with their lives? How much security was lost? How many of the 81's will never be found?" 2nd Grace said dryly.
Hover looked down at her plate. "Those are not my concerns."
"That's our job." The Bishop said. Speaking for the first time in hours.
His tone of voice made it very clear. It was MY job. I said so.
"Where and when do I start?"
Hover looked at me. "You're still wanted by the opposition. I'm surprised you're still alive to tell you the truth. They thought they could get me through you."
"Not all the 81's are going to come in peaceful either." Centre said. "Some of them will not want to be changed back."
Conga seemed startled by that one. "You CAN change them back?"
Hover nodded. Then shrugged. "Sometimes. Sometimes, things don't go well."
"What did you do to them to change them to begin with?" I asked.
"You noticed some, ahh, peculiarities with them?" Hover asked me, I nodded. "Like what?" She said.
"Well, they can operate on little or no food, can take an incredible amount of damage, have heightened senses, they're supermen."
"Basically." She smiled. "They were selected from volunteers from several different fields. Mostly military black ops. We, 'enhanced' them through a long chemical process that changed some of their basic life processes. And while it did result in a superior operative, it also led to some personality problems in many of the cases. Some of these didn't show up until much later." She looked at Centre. "Well. Until now. Years later."
"When did you do this to them?" Keia asked.
"During the Cold War."
"Nineteen Eighty-One." I said nodding.
"Most of them were assigned duty in third world countries. Deep cover, espionage." Centre said. "None were supposed to be in Europe or North America."
"Until things got out of hand." Conga said passing around the ribs again, everybody else had eaten their fill, so he felt obligated to finish off the container. "Then they brought some of them over here."
"Mulie." I said.
"He was the first one that decided to play all sides against the middle. Using the secret of his own existence as a bargaining chip to get himself ahead in the game. What he didn't understand was that he didn't exist, he had nothing to bargain with. The project had been wiped clean, they were dinosaurs. The NSA had disavowed that the 81 project had even been talked about. My section was to keep using them until they could be brought in one by one and treated. Changing them back. Word got out that of the first couple we tried to convert, one or two had gone badly, one died, the other, well, would have been better off dead. Mulie and the others panicked and went off on their own."
"But you said that one wasn't one of yours." 2nd Grace said.
"Technically they were all mine. But some of them went freelance. Or went over to the other side, and they couldn't do anything for them, the 81 technology is ours exclusively."
"But why the deception with the electronic crime and all that?" I asked her.
"Your mandate in Justice. Ours is Security. The enemies use all manner of routes to get in and do their damage. How better to know what they are doing than to be part of it. And use the proceeds from such activity to control their work?"
I nodded. But I didn't believe her. And I was getting that feeling down in my gut that I couldn't trust her. Then that tiny little seed of doubt I had that she was really Hover began to sprout and grow. My guts were telling me that she wasn't the genuine item.
I took a deep breath and did some addition involving long strings of two plus two.
They kept talking. I excused myself in a minute to 'get some air' and check out the scenery.
I glimpsed Falcon's helicopter sweeping over the hills across the valley.
The Bishop came out and walked over to the tree line where he did Nature's work.
He walked over to me and looked at the river. "You don't seem impressed with Ms. Hover."
"That ain't Hover. And whoever she is, I don't believe her, and I don't trust her."
"Me either. But she is all we got to get to the 81 program information through the NSA. My contact up the line told me she is all that's left of that organization."
"So what do we do from here?"
"We're leaving before dark. You are going with Falcon. Hopefully we can all go home in a week or so."
"Then I start tracking 81's?"
"No. I don't care where they are or what they are doing, we'll collect some information on them and let it go at that. You will be accessing damage and repairing the corporation. If an 81 needs brought in, you'll do it then and only then." He took off his sunglasses and wiped the lenses with a napkin.
"How about the others? I don't trust this 'Hover'."
"We are all going to have to be very careful, I would not put it past her organization to try to upsurp our Mandate." He had a very far away look in his eyes that was soon covered up by the glasses again. "But we have a wildcard or two to play in that case."
Something rang a bell, "You have an 81."
The Bishop smiled, "I'm damned glad you're on my side."
Back inside the others were still arguing the finer points of the spy versus spy game.
"Internal security is not our field of operations." Centre said. "We work only for the Spirit of Justice."
Hover nodded, "But how many assignments have you been on where the two overlapped?" She said to Conga.
"Sometimes the line is a little gray." The big man said taking a giant drink from his mug.
I started packing to go, letting them argue. Most of my gear fit into Conga's lunch trunk, I slid it into the plane's small cargo area with Keia's bag and some of the other things.
The hairs stood up on the back of my neck as Centre stood to put on his coat and Hover put her hand up to stop him, "Tell me about your baseball team." She said.
"Some other time." He said.
She looked around, "We've got time."
Bells went off in my head. She didn't want them leaving.
"That's it." I said. I drew the .454. "Keia. Take them to the plane, Conga." I picked up the rifle and threw it to him. "Let's go take a look." The man went out the door at a run.
Keia had the .32 auto in both hands and a look of absolute seriousness on her face.
Then all hell broke loose in the cabin. Hover went berserk, she grabbed for Centre and tried to get something out from under her vest.
The .454 erupted in my hand. Slamming the woman up against the mantle. But she was a long way from done. She had some sort of weapon in her hand aiming it in the general direction of the Bishop.
The ripping noise of the .32 on full auto echoed in the room. Keia emptied the entire clip into her from just a few feet away.
The woman turned in a long slow circle as countless pieces of metal tore into her. The weapon went off. The energy blast splintered the log wall nearby, but her eyes were still clear, still focusing. Just a hint of red to them now.
A boom sounded in the cabin.
The Bishop had his hands full of sawed off shotgun. He reloaded in a blink and let her have it again, aiming for the weapon in her hand. The hand, and the weapon, were obliterated.
But she was still coming.
Purple blood pouring out of her.
"I have never seen anything like that before." Centre said.
"I have." I said echoed in a beat by Conga.
"No. I mean the Bishop's shotgun. What's the barrel length on that? Ten inches?"
But the moment was interrupted by a squawking radio. Falcon announced on the box in Conga's beefy hand that we had company on the way. Three by land, two by air.
"Her backup's running late." The Bishop said.
"You knew they were coming?"
"We'll continue this back home." The Bishop nodded to Keia, "Mad Dog's OK now."
She smiled, it had taken her awhile to get over shooting the woman.
"We'll see you in Indiana." I said.
The Bishop shook his head. "No. I'll see you on line."
Centre started the plane as the Bishop and 2nd Grace got in.
Falcon landed in a minute and the rest of us piled in. Soon the building was left empty and alone for whoever was coming.
Except for the dead woman dripping purple blood onto the floor.
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