13 Jun 2014

By the Numbers - Chapter 11

Party Split
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Sunday, April 19, 2071
0927 hours

    Numbers kept her attention on Tarkov as she entered the meeting room.  Her internal commlink picked up the ID code from Nabi and displayed it and the woman's location on her contact lenses.  The hacker waited for Tarkov to sit before taking her own seat.  She felt the presence of Charles looming behind her.  Numbers sent a quick message, pointing out Nabi's location to him.  Across the room, the hacker saw the Asian woman standing behind the PacRim representative, her face impassive.

    The meeting started with Ms Evo summarizing the previous day's work.  For all the discussion and brainstorming done, the recap took less than ten minutes to complete.  During the brain numbing monologue, Numbers sent an email to her lucky teammates away from the hotel asking for an update as soon as there was one.  Not expecting an immediate reply, she steeled herself for another long day of fruitless effort.


0948 hours

    The unmarked grey Bulldog step-van rolled through the rain-slicked streets of the Barrens.  Treehugger kept an eye out on the buildings and an ear out for the Bulldog's sensors.  She noted the gang colours on a group of kids on one corner.  "Oz, find anything yet?"

    Oswald pulled his head back inside the step-van.  "Yeah, a whole lot of despair."

    "I'll get you a Fizzygoo later to pick up your spirits.  For now, I just want to point out the gangers watching us driving slowly down the street in a delivery truck.  I would feel bad if I had to pop the machine gun before we've found the girl.  Kind of blows the idea of stealth to hell."

    "Where was the last coordinate Numbers pulled from the video?"

    Treehugger checked her van's GPS.  "We passed it a block back.  Want me to turn around?"

    "Start circling.  Keep going wider.  I'm going to check the video again.  Maybe there's something in the background."

    "Let me know if you find anything."  The rigger turned right at the next intersection.  She checked the gang in her mirrors.  The gang watched the grey van leave their turf.

    Oswald played through the ransom video.  Only the teenaged Asian girl appeared in it; the ransom demands were given through an electronically disguised voice-over.  The blindfolded girl had her arms bound behind her back.  The only light in the room came from a partially boarded window.  Oswald forced himself to ignore the girl's distress, her tears, her pleas to her mother as he examined the details of the room she was in.  The only furnishing visible in the video was the chair the girl sat on.  The rest of the room was bare with gaping holes in the walls.  The mage froze the video, getting part of the window behind the kidnapped girl.  Oswald zoomed in, focusing an open gap between boards covering a broken pane.  "TH, if I give you a broken window, could you find it?"

    "It'd be easier to find one that wasn't broken.  Oz, we're in the Barrens.  Windows have a half-life measured in seconds."

    "Pull over.  I've got something I want you to see."

    "Fine."  Treehugger brought the Bulldog to a stop.  She flicked on the anti-theft system.  "What is it?"

    Oswald showed the rigger the image.  "There's something through there."  He pointed at the gap.  "I've zoomed in the best I can, but the girl was the camera's focus.  Still a bit of a blur."

    "Numbers has the apps to fix that, not me."

    "Let me try to sharpen it."  Oswald fiddled with the controls on his commlink.  "There.  Recognize anything?"

    Treehugger leaned in to better inspect the image.  "Maybe.  Like an old billboard, I'd say.  There's enough graffiti there."  The rigger sat back up.  "Wait, that might narrow things down a little.  Let me get us out of sight.  Mr. J's little toy might help."


1042 hours

    The meeting's morning break came about later than expected due to an extended argument over minutia.  Numbers stepped out of the room ahead of Tarkov.  She ignored the sniping between the representatives from DocWagon and Lone Star ahead of her in the line to get past the security line.  The Saeder-Krupp delegation stood near the elevator, discussing among themselves.  From time to time, Fraulein Krupp or her security team's commander would glance back at the crowd.  Numbers fought down the fear that they were looking at or for her.

    Once she stepped past the security cordon, Numbers felt a hand grab her shoulder and pull her aside.  The hacker tried to pull free purely out of instinct.  Numbers felt resistance, felt her shoulder stay in place before being released.  She spun to see who had held her.

    "Sorry," Nabi said.  "I should have said something."

    "No, no, it's okay."  Numbers felt her arms and legs tremble.  "I haven't heard anything yet."

    Nabi glanced around.  "I have.  I need to act after lunch but before the afternoon break."

    "I'll let my people know."

    "You have to understand.  If I don't hear from my daughter before then, I will do what I must."

    Numbers nodded.  "I'll let my people know that, too."


1048 hours

    The Federated-Boeing Kull glided between the gaps from one building to the next.  The drone transmitted the view from its onboard cameras back to Treehugger.  She searched for billboards or walls with the same blur of colour that Oswald had found.  "Needles would be easier," she muttered.  The rigger ignored the incoming message alert, remained focused on her search.

    "TH, new wrinkle," Oswald said.

    Treehugger directed her voice through her Bulldog's radio.  "Wonderful.  What now?"

    "We have a deadline."

    "Well, shit.  How long do we have?"

    "That's the fun part.  Let's call it lunch.  That will give us a small buffer."

    "Just wiz."  The speaker gave an electronic sigh.  "Going to the next block.  Whoa, wait up.  Oz, look at this."  A holographic image of a weather-beaten vandalized billboard appeared over Treehugger's commlink.  "What do you think?"

    Oswald placed his 'link next to the rigger's and displayed his image.  "Can you make yours blurry?"  Treehugger overrode the Kull's camera focus.  "There!" the mage said.  "TH, where is that?"

    "Seven blocks northeast from here.  Want me to leave the drone there?"

    "Bring it back.  No need to warn anyone we're coming."

    Treehugger sent the recall signal to the Kull.  She returned to her body.  "Give it a few minutes."  She opened the step-van's rear door then climbed back.  The drone touched down in the alley and taxied to the back of the Bulldog.  Treehugger left the van, an Aztech Crawler under one arm.  "Let the others know we've got a possible location," she said.  "Sooner they can get here, the sooner we can start the run once we find the kid."

    "On it," the mage called.

    Treehugger created a makeshift sling for the Crawler then attached it to the underside of the Kull.  She turned the FedBoeing drone around, pointing it to the other end of the alley.  The rigger tapped her commlink, entering a flight pattern for the drone.  "Done here.  I'm going to drop a Crawler near the billboard to keep an eye on things up there."  The Kull took off, flying up from the alleyway.  Treehugger got back in the Bulldog, back behind the wheel.

    "Kiser's on his way.  Quinn's got a small team, and Storm is somewhere."  Oswald looked out his rolled down window.  "This better work."

    "I hear you."  Treehugger triggered the back door closed as she guided the step-van out of the alley.  "Call out when you see something."  The rigger kept the Bulldog below the speed limit as she wound her way through the empty streets.

    After several blocks, Oswald called, "Got it!"

    "Are you sure?"

    "There's an astral barrier.  Either we found the girl or we found a wizkid gang's hideout.  I'll stake good nuyen on the girl."  Oswald rolled his window up.

    Treehugger drove past the building, an abandoned five-story office tower whose brick wall showed the effects of acid rain.  "Call the others.  I'll let Numbers know."


1257 hours

    The lunch break ended far sooner than Numbers wanted.  She flipped through her inbox as she sat down on a couch in the hotel's lobby.  The hacker found nothing but junk email.  She shook her head in an attempt to clear it.  The wait was beginning to eat her from the inside.  Her data models, created as she ate a lunch she never tasted, pointed to a bloodbath inside the meeting room.    If she and Charles got lucky, Tarkov would just need hospitalization at the cost of her life.  Numbers wanted a Plan B.

    The hacker saw Nabi at the elevator, waiting to return up to the meeting.  Numbers formulated a Plan B.  She sent a quick message to Charles then dashed over to Nabi's side.  "Have a minute?" Numbers asked.

    "You have news?"  The Asian woman kept watch on the floor indicator.

    "Not in public."  Numbers hoped her tailored pheromones were working overtime.  "We should speak in private.  Away from recording devices and cameras."

    Nabi nodded.  "Please lead the way."

    Numbers strode to the hotel's parking exit.  She sent another message to Charles telling him where she'll be.  At the Humvee Civic, Numbers unlocked the doors and ushered Nabi into the back.  The Asian woman sat down and smoothed out her skirt.  She fixed her gaze on Numbers.  The hacker smiled.  "Please understand what I need to do," Numbers said.  She flicked her wrist.  Her Cavalier Scout slid out of her sleeve and into her hand.  "I can't have you in the meeting room."

    Nabi remained impassive.  "I see.  What's next?"

    "I don't know.  I'm just a hacker."

    "I see."  Nabi's hand flicked under her jacket.  In the time it took for Numbers to raise her pistol, the Asian woman had a machine pistol out and aimed at the hacker.  "Do you know what happens now?"

    "We wait."

    "Please let your very large teammate know that we will be waiting alone, then."  Nabi gave the machine pistol a meaningful shake.  "Or he will have to spend your share on a funeral."

    Numbers managed to keep her eyes locked on Nabi instead of the weapon as she sent the message to Charles.  "Done."  The Scout in her own hand felt heavy.  "We do have a location, Nabi.  My people are moving in.  If things go well, we can both leave the car and forget everything."

    Nabi stretched her legs.  "And if not?"

    "I will be regretting my actions today for the rest of my probably very short life."

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