20 Jun 2014

By the Numbers - Chapter 12

Stand Off

(Language warning in effect.)

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Sunday, April 19, 2071
1309 hours

    Treehugger set a Crawler down at the foot of the stairs as the three Lone Star FRT troopers deployed in the hallway.  The rigger crept back, getting out of sight from the stairway.  "Oz, it's TH.  Drone's in place.  Go."  She heard the mage's acknowledgement.

    Kiser crouched down beside Treehugger.  "Quinn's in place.  Are you sure you don't want a patrol out here as backup?"

    "Chummer, a cop car out here would be like a flare.  The police just don't come out this far.  Now, if you'll excuse me, I want to make sure the next floor is clear."  Treehugger jumped into the Crawler.  She directed the little drone up the stairs.  Treads and servos worked hard to keep the Crawler from falling back down each step.  The drone crested the landing.  Treehugger urged it forward, keeping an eye on the sensor data feeding into her.  Satisfied that the floor was clear, she programmed the Crawler to continue up to the next floor and returned to her body.  "Second floor's empty," she reported.

    Sergeant Quinn took the lead, his two troopers following, submachine guns out and ready.  Kiser unslung his Ares-built assault rifle and followed.  Not one of them made a sound loud enough to be heard by the drone.  Tempest waited, letting the Lone Star troopers get in position before heading up.  Treehugger brought up the rear, coordinating the feed from the Crawler inside and the Kull patrolling outside.  "The Crawler's not picking up anything next level up," Treehugger said.

    "What about magical activity?" Kiser said.  "Your mage spotted the place because of a ward."

    "I'll go check," Tempest said.  She crept up the stairs.  Halfway up, she stopped, stiffened slightly.  "Clear on the astral."

    "Move."  Quinn and his men slipped past the young woman.

    Treehugger returned to the drone's data stream.  The Crawler reached the next floor and stopped.  It's infrared cameras relayed a pattern of beams in the fourth floor hallway.  "No one go past the third," the rigger said.  "They've got trip beams set up."

    "Copy that," Quinn said.

    Kiser crouched beside Treehugger.  "What now?"

    "I need to get up there and turn the alarm off," Treehugger answered.  "If we had a proper hacker, that wouldn't be a problem.  You've got me, though.  If I can plug right into the system, I might be able to play spider."

    "Works for me."  Kiser checked the time.  "Better make it quick.  Lunch ended ten minutes ago."

-**-

1312 hours

    Oswald reached the edge of the astral barrier.  He shifted his perception to the astral.  The barrier rippled with colour.  The mage reached out, not quite touching the ward.  Power surged through the barrier.  Oswald grimaced.  Breaching the ward would alert the magician who put it up.  Probably get the girl killed, too.  He studied the ward again, aware of time ticking by.  A pattern emerged in the colours and surges.  The mage who put up the barrier had power but used broad strokes.  Oswald preferred subtlety.  He focused on his aura, forcing its patterns to shift, to change, to match the astral ward's own.  The mage reached out again, this time touching the astral barrier.  The ward resisted, flared, then flowed to include the mage.  Oswald stepped through the ward, letting its power wash over him.

    The deserted office had seen better days.  The only light came from whatever sunlight that could penetrate the cloud cover.  Debris covered the floor.  Holes in the plaster on walls revealed the building's support structure.  Oswald picked his way over the clutter towards the door, trying to stay in the shadows.  The door opened.  "I was wondering when the rescue attempt would come," a man's voice said.  "Some light would be nice."  A small puff of flame appeared.  It grew, flickering light bathing the dingy office.  The conjurer's face was bathed in orange light, tinting his blond hair red.  "Much better.  And, yes, I can conjure spirits of flame like you do."

    "That's good to hear."  Oswald circled, keeping the spirit between him and the other magician.  "Sorry about your people.  Maybe you should have trained them to dodge spirits."

    "You are aware that you have killed the girl?  Such a pity."

    "I think the more important thing is that I know better than to have an open flame in a fire trap."  Oswald pointed at the ceiling about the spirit of fire.  The tiles above blackened.  "Just needs an accelerant."  He snapped his fingers as he channeled his spell.  The tiles burst into flame.

-**-

1313 hours

    Treehugger jury-rigged a connection to the beam emitter.  She steeled herself then plugged the other end of the cable into her datajack.  The system overwhelmed her senses.  Treehugger struggled to maintain control of her body.  After a moment, the alarm system settled down.  Treehugger felt the beams up and down her arms and legs, warming her limbs.  A steady pulse traveled up her spine.  The rigger traced the pulse, following it down a long tunnel.  A receiver took the pulse and maintained a steady hum.  Treehugger intercepted a pulse, holding it in place.  The receiver gave a high-pitched beep.  Treehugger released the pulse, letting them continue to the receiver.  The hum returned.

    Treehugger dove into the receiver.  She felt her body contorting in ways that weren't physically possible without having her bones shattered and joints ripped apart.  The rigger ignored the new positions and corresponding lack of pain and concentrated on finding the source of the hum.  Switches lined up along the corridor.  Treehugger examined each, one by one, until she found the source.  The circuitry leading into it remained live as long as the beams were unbroken.  One break and the hum changed to the alarm.  Treehugger worked out the logic of the circuit, reset it so that as long as one beam was good, the alarm would never trigger.  She broke the connection.

    The rush back to her body left Treehugger disoriented.  She held her head until the hall stopped spinning.  Kiser pulled her back.  "Are you okay, girl?"

    "Yeah," Treehugger stammered.  "Yeah.  Dump shock.  It sucks, but I should have expected it."

    "And the alarm?"

    "Don't break the last beam until we're all in the hall."  Treehugger got to her feet.

    "You heard the lady," Quinn said.  "Let's move."  He and his men stepped lightly as they entered the hall.  They crouched down half way down and waited.

    Kiser tapped Tempest's shoulder.  "Go."  The magician followed the Lone Star troopers.  "Treehugger, you're next."

    "Coming, coming."  The rigger pulled the Crawler back.  She sent it a stand-by signal.  The drone powered down.  Treehugger picked her way across the beams to join the others.  Kiser brought up the rear.  Treehugger looked back.  "Okay, beams behind us are on," she said.  "We should be good to go."

    Before anyone replied, the door at the end of the hall opened.  A lone human walked out, AK-97 in hand.  Quinn brought up his HK 227-X and fired a silenced burst.  The shots caught the human in the shoulder, spinning him.  He fumbled to raise his assault rifle.  Quinn shot again, ripping open his target's chest.

    Treehugger drew her Predator.  The smartlink superimposed a targetting sight over her vision.  She crouched and took a bead on the doorway.

-**-

1313 hours

    "Charles, I need Mr. Johnson to stall as long as possible."  Numbers never turned away from Nabi.  "I will explain everything to him later.  Just keep the meeting going."  She disconnected her call.

    "This is futile," Nabi said.  "Delaying won't do anything to help my daughter."

    "Killing everyone won't, either."

    "Perhaps you are right."  Nabi raised the barrel of her machine pistol.  "Perhaps one death will help."  She placed the gun's barrel under her jaw.

    Numbers's eyes widened.  "You can't be serious."

    "I am.  If you try to stop me, I will shoot."

    "What will suicide accomplish?"

    "My daughter is the most important thing in the world.  She is all I have.  Would you be able to continue living if you lost everything that mattered?"

    "Every day."  Numbers punched in Treehugger's comm code on her 'link.  She placed the call on speaker.  "The run is still going."

    "Treehugger.  Please hold."  The music of Til Es Hault started playing.

    "Treehugger!"  Numbers forced herself to calm down.  "I'm sure there's an explanation."

-**-

1313 hours

    Oswald's opponent stared at the flames spreading along the ceiling.  "You're insane!"

    "You're the one who brought in the fire elemental," Oswald said.  "I'm just hastening the inevitable."

    The blond magician cut his hand through the air.  The spirit dissipated.  "Do you have any idea what you've done?"

    Oswald pulled out his loaned Predator.  "I just evened the odds."

    "One shot, and the girl dies."

    Shouts came from deeper in the office.  Oswald smirked.  "You really thought I was alone."

    "You are alone."  The blond magician's face took on a draconic appearance.  A faint blue glow covered the magician.  "With me."

    Oswald snorted.  "An armour spell.  Please."  He whispered a word of power, flicked a finger towards the blond man.

    The stunbolt washed over the blond magician.  He resisted, drawing on reserves deep within him.  "You must be insane."

    "I'm not the one kidnapping young girls."  Oswald picked his way over the debris on the floor.  "I think I have the edge on sanity here."  He concentrated, faded from view.

    The blond magician's draconic mask reappeared.  He gestured.  Ice formed on the floor, spreading out several metres and under Oswald's feet as he crept away.  Oswald's foot shot out on its heel.  The mage fell, landed hard.  He worked to keep his concentration on remaining invisible.  His Colt clattered across the ice.  Oswald scrambled over the ice away from his pistol, keeping his eye on his opponent.  "Check," the blond man said.

    Oswald focused on his Manhunter.  He gestured, breathed a word.  The Colt clattered on the ice then floated up.  The blond man snarled and cut his hand through the air.  Debris shot up from the floor and peppered the air around the pistol.  Oswald cut his spell.  The Manhunter thudded on the floor.  The blond man skirted the edge of the ice sheet, looking around.  "You're still here," he said.  "Magic Fingers still needs you to see what you're picking up."

    Ignoring his opponent, Oswald backed up against the wall.  He glanced up at the smoking ceiling; the tile was ablaze.  Oswald turned his full attention on the tile, casting the same spell on it.  The tile resisted then tore away.  The mage directed the flaming debris at his opponent.  The blond man ducked, rolled.  More detritus shot up from the floor, scattered against the back wall.  The blond magician's breathing grew heavy.  "Show yourself!"  He waited, listening.  "Fine.  There's always a way to find an invisible opponent."  The blond man paused as he shifted his perception.  He turned in a circle, stopping when he faced Oswald.  "Got you."

    "Get this."  Oswald let the invisibility drop.  He found his centre, pulled from his reserves within it.  Raw mana coursed through him, setting his nerves on fire.  Oswald grunted with the effort of keeping his spell's energy from consuming him.  He directed the energy through his hands.  The stun bolt rushed through him, roiling, threatening to overwhelm.  Oswald shouted an incoherent word.  He released the spell.  The mana spilled out, flew to its target.  The blond man collapsed.    Blood trickled out his mouth.

    Oswald staggered and fell against the wall.  As he panted for breath, he rubbed his finger under his nose.  "Great," he muttered, feeling blood.  He looked down at the unconscious man.  "Let's see what you know."

-**-

1314 hours

    Nabi remained calm.  "Time is almost up."

    "You just can't kill yourself!"  Numbers set her Cavalier Scout on her lap.  "What about the people who took your daughter?  Are you going to let them win?"

    "They have won!"

    "You're still alive.  You can hunt these people down yourself."

    "And do what?  Get revenge?  I've tried that.  This is where it got me."  Nabi shook her head.  Her machine pistol rattled.  "They have won."

    Numbers held up her commlink still playing elven rock.  "We're still waiting for my people.  If you kill yourself now and Treehugger is successful, who will take care of your daughter?"

    Nabi stared at the hacker for several long minutes.  "I will wait."

-**-

1316 hours

    Treehugger heard movement inside the office.  A shadow crossed past the open door.  "Hey, Bob, find anything?"  The voice, a man's soprano, waited.  "Bob?"  A head appeared framed in the doorway.  "Shit!  Someone get the girl!"

    The Lone Star troopers fired several bursts, forcing the head to duck back.  "Cease fire!" Kiser called.  "Cease fire!"

    "Cease fire," Quinn repeated.  The troopers stopped shooting.

    Figures emerged from the office's gloom.  Three men, one pushing a blindfolded and bound teenaged girl in front, came out the door.  "Drop your guns or I'll kill her."  The man jammed his gun against the girl's temple.

    "You don't want to do this," Kiser said.

    "The only thing keeping you alive is her," Treehugger added.

    "Stand aside!"

    "Please don't kill me," the girl whimpered.  "Please, please don't kill me."

    The kidnapper slapped the girl with his gun barrel.  "Shut up!"

    Treehugger shifted.  The men behind the kidnapper levelled their AKs at the rescue team.  Kiser raised his assault rifle.  "You men have a chance to walk away.  Just leave us the girl."

    One of the men glanced at his leader.  "Come on, man."

    "Shut it!" the kidnapper growled.  "We have our orders."

    Treehugger felt her call waiting buzz on her commlink.  "Not now," she whispered.

    "Damn it, Treehugger," Numbers shouted, "I need an update!"

    "I'm in a fucking stand off," Treehugger snarled.  "The girl is safe for now."  She stabbed the hold button.

    "Stand back!"  The kidnapper ground his pistol's barrel into the girl.  She mewled but didn't say a word.  "I will kill her."

    The third gunman glanced at his commlink.  "The deadline's past.  Kill her."

    "What?" the second man said.  "They'll kill us!"

    "No one has to die," Treehugger said.  "Let her go."

    The lead kidnapper slumped over.  He let go of the teenager.  The girl reeled then slammed to the floor as if bowled over.  Tempest stood up.  Lightning crackled from her fingers, arced through the air over the prone teenager, hit the lead kidnapper.  He screamed as the lightning ground through him.  His teammates dropped their assault rifles and raised their hands in the air.

    Oswald appeared on top of the teenager.  He stood up and helped the girl get to her feet.  "Let's move.  TH, call Numbers."

    Treehugger released the hold.  "Ahead of you, omae.  Numbers, are you still there?"

-**-

1317 hours

    Numbers held her breath.  "We're here, TH."

    "Hang on," Treehugger said.

    There was pause.  "Mom?"

    Nabi's machine pistol fell out of her numb fingers.  "Sun Jung?"  Nabi switched to a torrent of emotional Korean.

    "I'm fine, Mom."  The girl's voice broke.  "I want to see you.  Are you coming home soon?"

    "Yes, Sun Jung.  I'll see you--"  A burst of gunfire from the commlink's speaker cut Nabi off.  Her daughter screamed.  "Sun Jung?  Sun Jung?"

    "We're fine," Treehugger said.  "Just some clean up going on.  Oswald's going to take the kid home.  I'll see everyone at the hotel."  The rigger broke the call.

    Numbers sat back in her seat.  Her arms shook.  "There.  Safe."

    Nabi slipped her machine pistol back under her jacket.  "I am grateful.  I can never repay you for what you've returned to me."

    "Let's call it a favour."

    "A favour."  Nabi nodded to Numbers then opened her door.  "I should go.  I have a daughter expecting me."

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