INT: Agency stealth jet
Decker had slipped out of sight after they'd all teleported back on board. At Central's request, Nika and Internationale went searching for him.
They made for an odd-looking pair: Maria “Internationale” Valdés, who wore her lanky frame and alabaster skin as a badge of hacking expertise, was a stick figure next to Nika Muratova. The Russian woman’s cold eyes and thin grimace exuded an air of menace that in of itself had made her an effective bodyguard in her former life. (The firearms and krav maga expertise likely hadn’t hurt, either. Well, had hurt, but hadn’t hurt her .)
This ship had never been meant for anything but short-term personnel transport, so it made for a truly dismal emergency headquarters. What it lacked in space, it made up for in tight corridors with low visibility. More than once, Nika had remarked that she’d been on submarines more open and inviting.
They found Decker in the loading bay, poring over a hunk of machinery the size of a briefcase or two. His head was tilted so that the brim of his fedora left only his mouth visible.
“Decker,” Internationale said. “What are you working on there?"
“Central asked after you,” Nika added. “She seems... concerned that you did not make the debriefing.” (Her glowering expression might have seemed personally affronted, but this was Nika here, and as far as the others could tell, that was simply how her face was set.)
Decker glanced their way as they approached. "Tell the old girl I'm still breathing,” he said. "Just wanted a moment to myself.”
"What is that?” Internationale pointed at the machine Decker was prodding at. It was generically obtuse hardware, metal levers and dials jutting out haphazardly from matte casing. Squint hard enough and it could have passed for a small nanofab unit.
"Coffee machine,” Decker grunted, as if this was obvious.
"Coffee?” Internationale leaned in for a closer look. "Like the protein flavour?"
"Exactly. Haven't seen one of these since I was in diapers.”
Nika hummed appreciatively. "One of my former clients, wealthy oil man, he had something like this in his apartments. Makes lovely smell. I did not realise the agency owned such a thing.”
"We do now,” said Decker. "Found it on a desk on the second floor. Not even plugged in. I didn't want it going to waste. Would be a damned shame to leave it on some K&O middle manager's desk like a museum piece.”
He made a satisfied noise and stepped away.
Internationale frowned. "So it's a... luxury item?"
Decker opened his mouth, then paused. "Um.”
"If I say 'yes', are we getting another political lecture?"
"Answer the question, Decker.”
"It didn't use to be a luxury. At least, not as much. Once upon a time...”
“So, what, a hundred years before you were born?”
Decker ignored the interruption. “...any old worker could buy themselves a cup in the morning. It was only really around the time of the resource wars that it got rare.”
"So not, like, liquid gold?” said Internationale, sounding dubious still.
"I figured it might be nice to try it out,” said Decker. "Relive a little ancient history, and--"
"Wait,” said Internationale. "You carried that out of the mission with you?"
" That's why you barely made it to the lifts?"
Decker frowned. "They were at least ten seconds behind me.”
“Five seconds, Decker. And that was a whole damn prisec team.”
“Yeah, well.” Decker patted the coffee machine. "Trust me, this thing was worth the risk. It's a little out of repair but it's worth it.”
Internationale was unimpressed. "Out of repair meaning...?"
Decker sighed. "Meaning we need a couple of spare parts, but nothing we can't pick up on the job.”
"On the job,” Nika echoed. "As in, while I am busy making sure you children are not shot.”
"I know, I know,” said Decker. He sighed. "I was just thinking, it'd make for a nice team morale thing, you know? Something to work towards beyond just surviving. A little creature comfort.”
Internationale said that she agreed that more camaraderie was always a plus, and Nika said that the idea seemed "somewhat pleasant", so they were basically all in agreement. Decker begin explaining the different parts of the machine, or at least those he remembered, with Internationale stopping him every few seconds to ask about some small mechanical detail. Nika crossed her arms and leaned against the wall as the two talked, assuming her usual role of watchdog even here in the safety of the ship.
Nika interrupted the other two exactly once, after Internationale had started playing around with pressure dials:
"Decker,” said Nika, "a question.”
"This retrieval... You have cleared it with Central?"
Nobody spoke for a full ten seconds.
"It can be a... surprise,” Decker said finally.
Internationale snorted. "Hmm. Well. I've risked my life for sillier things.”
"Don't get me started on 'silly',” said Nika. "I was once hired as a bodyguard for a poodle .” She shuddered. "It was... a degrading assignment. Paid very well, though.”
She looked to the others and shrugged.
"I am… in if you are.”
INT: FTM financial suite, Atlanta
"I have to ask,” said Internationale, as Decker rifled through the unconscious executive's stationery drawers.
Decker grunted. "What?"
"Have you ever done this on other missions? Bring back... souvenirs?"
"A couple of times. The occasional whiskey bottle, usually. Does that bother you?"
"Oh, no, no, I... I mean, I've taken things too.” Internationale frowned. She distracted herself for a few seconds scanning the camera network for surveillance daemons before she continued. "The corps have no rightful claim to any of this. The money, the land, the power. We're at war with them, I have no issues there.”
"You sound as if this coffee machine thing is giving you the jitters.”
“Less talking, please,” grumbled Nika from the other side of the room.
Internationale shot Nika an apologetic smile, then returned her attention to the task at hand. She hijacked the camera covering the back half of the room, then started on the storage cabinets there. Decker followed shortly behind her, heading for the safes on the far wall.
"It's what Nika was saying before,” Internationale said pensively. “About her rich client having a coffee machine. Don't you think it's... ostentatious, having one? Even if it's for the team collectively.”
“What, because they're rare?”
"Yes. It's a strange symbol . Like having a solid gold statue in the briefing room. We're trying to bring the corps down, not become them.”
Decker was quiet for a while. He moved between the safes, seeming lost in thought as he relieved them of their contents.
"I get what you mean,” he said finally. "It's a luxury...”
"But?” said Internationale, quirking an eyebrow.
"I don't know. They... they weren't always this way. They grew out of the soil once upon a time. Like any organic, really.”
"That doesn't really make it any less upper-class now , though, does it?"
"I guess not.” Decker sighed. "I don't know, it doesn't seem as bad as a gold statue. Couldn't really say why, though.”
" Hurry the hell up ,” said Nika, who had now been wedging the security door open for nearly three minutes.
"Right.” Internationale shot Nika an apologetic smile, then returned her attention to Decker. "Table this for now?"
INT: Plastech augment centre, Seoul
Central's voice crackled through their headsets. "Installing the implants must have tripped a security protocol. There's a patrol on its way. Get out of there, agents.”
"On it,” said Internationale.
What she actually meant was, On it as soon as I'm done removing the secondary drill from this augment machine.
There was nothing terribly complicated about disassembling an augment machine. The devices were designed to be operated by cybernetics experts, so no effort was made to hide the nuts and bolts of their casings. Internationale had removed several auxiliary casing layers, cut the power, and was now largely trying to figure out what pieces she could remove without cutting herself on the saws and scalpels that had folded back into the machine after use. The drill was almost in reach, and even if it hurt to contort her back in the correct angle to stick her head into the machinery and see it, it was truly satisfying eyeballing the drill and seeing that, just as they'd guessed, it was the perfect size.
("I think you're supposed to... crush these into a powder?” Decker had said, holding open a bag of seed-like beans. "So I guess we need a... blender or something.”
“You have no idea what we’re doing, do you?” she’d replied.)
It had been easy enough to talk Central into making a Plastech augmentation facility their next target, though she'd seemed marginally suspicious by the end of the meeting. The case for outfitting themselves with better physical enhancements was a solid one, but honestly, Nika might have slightly overdone it with her line about 'craving the feel of titanium bones in my fists'.
Either way, the end result was them here, with Internationale arms deep in an augment machine with a crusty old headlamp illuminating her power tools as they worked, and Nika and Decker standing guard, crouching at key positions around the room with their arms outstretched like Holovid action stars who were paid extra whenever they hammed it up.
"Internationale. We doing okay there?” said Decker. He was rifling through the pockets of an unconscious guard at his feet.
She nodded. "Almost done.”
"What does 'almost' mean?” said Decker.
Internationale didn't respond for a moment. Her hands continued to work on removing the next layer of casing, while her mind ran through some quick calculations.
Central's voice again: "What's the delay there? That patrol Incognita spotted is almost on top of you.”
"Thirty more seconds,” muttered Internationale.
"Thirty seconds?” said Central. "Thirty seconds of what?"
"Whoops,” said Internationale, "I was talking to myself.” She flicked her mic away from her face. "Nika, Decker. Twenty-five more seconds. Can you hold them?"
Nika shrugged. "Your taser, please,” she said.
Internationale nodded but didn't pause in her work disassembling the machine, and with a heavy sigh Decker reached over to nab the weapon from her side holster. He tossed it to Nika, who was already halfway to the door.
With her free hand, Nika signalled to Decker. You. Distract.
A heartbeat later, two armoured guards burst into the room, guns first. They both swivelled to aim at Decker, who was standing on a table, palms raised and empty.
"I surrender,” said Decker drily.
The guards seemed to not know how to respond to something as absurd as surrender. Their mouths creased under their visors.
A second later, Nika slithered out of the shadows into striking range.
She flew into the first of them with an elbow to the C4 vertabrae that sent him crumpling to the ground. The second, she spun around to taze with her neural disrupter. He threw up an arm in time to protect his chest from electrocution, and instead stumbled back. He went for his firearm--
"The other one's still kicking,” said Decker. He prodded at the first guard with his foot. "Should I knock him out?"
Nika, now grappling with the second guard on the ground, legs pinning one arm down while she wrestled with the other for control of his weapon, shot Decker an exasperated look.
" Yes ,” she said, as if it were the most obvious thing in the world, which, to be fair, it kind of was.
"Roger that,” said Decker, lazily leaning down to knock the first guard out.
There was a loud crunching noise as Nika finished with the second guard.
Internationale frowned. " Gentle , Nika. They're just doing their jobs.”
"Flesh wounds,” said Nika. "Their employer will comp them.” She used her foot to shunt one guard's arm to the side so Internationale wouldn't notice the dislocation.
"They're not exactly white knights, either,” muttered Decker.
Ever-so-gently, Internationale pulled the drill from its casing. She winced as a loose bolt clattered to the ground.
"Yeah, well, neither are we,” she said. "Here we go. One elitist food prep drill. We good now?"
"Grinder,” Decker corrected her. "Yeah, we're good.”
He stood up and took four steps towards their planned exit before stopping as loud footsteps started thumping from that direction.
"Um,” said Decker. "Other way?"
Loud footsteps started thumping towards them from the only other exit to the room.
The three agents all exchanged glances.
"This is not ideal,” said Nika.
"Either of you have any bright ideas?” said Internationale.
The footsteps grew louder--
INT: Agency stealth jet
Two minutes later, they stumbled out of the ship's teleporter.
Internationale groaned in pain. "That definitely grazed my arm.”
"You're not even bruised, hacker,” said Nika, rolling her eyes. "Grow some thicker skin.”
They all paused for breath.
"So if Central asks why we took so long...” said Decker.
"Comms interference?” suggested Internationale.
"Comms interference,” Decker agreed.
"I can hear you from there,” shouted Central from the operations deck.
Decker, Internationale and Nika exchanged glances.
"... really bad comms interference?” suggested Internationale.
INT: Sankaku detention centre, Gaborone
The flicker of a light bulb was the first sign that something was off.
Dr Xu had only been here for a few days, and so far the coercive onboarding specialist unit had been remarkabe gentle with him. Sleep deprivation, an electrified floor and low oxygen levels qualified as torture, certainly, but he'd been expecting sharp implements in his tearducts and sodium penthanol in his veins by now. The gruel they'd been force-feeding him did seem to be laced with amphetamines, but honestly, he'd eaten worse at Nanhai street vendors during his postdoc days. Sankaku had had him for nearly forty-eight hours and yet they were still taking their time extracting information from him. He half-wondered whether the suits had forgotten about the facility, or if they'd cracked and started experimenting with post-modern torture.
Hence, when the fluoros flickered overhead, his first thought wasn't "Hmm, a drip-powered generation five parasite attack on the facility grid. Someone's breaking into this place.” Rather, his first thought was "This is a very realistic simulation of a rescue attempt. Finally the mind games begin.”
His cell was soundproofed, but he could clearly see as two women entered the holding area and tranq'd the sole guard on watch before she could even turn around.
Xu recognised Maria Internationale (which didn't mean much in this age of holocloaks, but raised the odds this was a real rescue to... oh, let's say, forty percent). The woman beside her was blonde, gaunt, ageless in the same way an ominous statue in front of church might be said to be ageless.
"Dr Xu,” Internationale said, once she had the cell door open. "Can you walk?"
"To the best of my knowledge, yes,” Xu replied.
The moment he passed through the cell door, his subaural uplink reactivated, and a familiar voice crackled in his ear.
"Hello, Tony,” said Central.
"Olivia,” said Xu. "Was it, uh... red-seven-one?"
"Amber-eight-seven.” The eye roll was evident in Central's voice as she gave the countersign. "Really, who else would we be?"
Xu felt himself relax a little more. "So it is you. Excellent. Captivity does not agree with me.”
"Internationale and Nika will escort you out. I'll see you shortly, Dr.”
There was a slight click as Central signed off. Then, silence.
Xu turned to his rescuers. "You know your way to the facility teleporter, I assume?"
The ominous one - Nika - nodded. "Before we leave, however,” she said, "your assistance is required.”
She reminded him of Ruth Sulzer, his first doctoral adviser. The imperative tone of voice somewhere between military and schoolteacher, of course, but also her stance -- she stood tall, proud but careful, exuding a dangerous confidence. If this Nika was anything like Sulzer, her confidence was entirely justified, and she was not to be messed around with.
Fortunately, Xu was not one for playing games.
"Of course,” he said. "Fill me in once we're out of here.”
"Actually, we...” Nika's face contorted, as if she were chewing on a particularly tough bit of meat. "We need your help right here. You are to help us disassemble an Obake drone. The... exhaust filter, I believe? We must recover it.”
They made their way down the hall at a brisk jog. Xu felt dizzy from all the sudden movement. He couldn't remember the last time he'd eaten properly, either. Certainly not for at least a week before the corps snatched him while walking home.
"What does Central require the exhaust filter for?” he panted.
Nika smirked. "This operation is... off the books.”
"I'm not sure I... understand.”
They rounded the corner, where a familiar-looking man in a dark trench coat stood over a collapsed combat drone, face shadowed broodingly.
"Xu, I assume?” the man said, not looking up.
"Yes,” said Xu. "Deckard, if I recall correctly?"
"My apologies. Decker. A pleasure to see you again, albeit under dire circumstances.” Xu took Decker's place, kneeling over the Obake drone and casting a careful eye over it. The other agents had done a good job knocking the drone out, but removing parts was going to be interesting. Xu knew Sankaku failsafes: the corp was happy to self-destruct a perfectly good unit to prevent any possibility of reverse engineering. Disassembly was possible, but the task required a certain delicacy the others didn't project. He was glad they'd waited for him.
"What do we need this for?” said Xu, unbuttoning his sleeves.
"We're fixing up a, uh...” Internationale paused, the obscure word escaping her.
"Coffee machine,” said Nika.
"Oh,” said Xu. He considered this. "A frivolity, then?"
"Just a little something to help with staying sane,” said Decker.
Xu laughed. "We are all well past 'sane', Mr Decker. Pass me a laser cutter, if you would be so kind.”
INT: Agency stealth jet
"... aaand we're live.”
The machine purred contentedly. Caramel-brown nectar dripped into the cup. Steam rose and dissipated, leaving behind the scent of flowers and cocoa. Internationale murmured something snarky about the colour.
Decker flipped a switch to shut it down. Then, almost tenderly, he extricated the cup from the machine.
Decker tilted his head to Nika. "Would you do the honours?"
"The honour is all mine,” replied Nika, accepting the proferred mug. "Should I not wait for the others?"
"Hell, no. Someone's got to warn us if it tastes like crap.”
"I see.” Nika's face grew serious. "Very well. I will protect your lives with my own.”
She blew steam across the cup, then took a long gulp.
She looked around the room, meeting expectant faces with her impassive poker face.
"Well?” said Internationale. "Is Decker trying to poison us all?"
"It tastes...” Nika waved her free hand in the air, chasing after an errant adjective. "It tastes of cigarette burns and chocolate. Is disgusting-” She smirked. "-but wonderful. Try and see.”
"Who's next?” said Decker, pulling the next cup out of the machine. ('Cup' was a very evasive way of describing a former can of beans, sliced neatly open with a laser, but evasion was the modus operandi of everyone here, so...)
Dr Xu was next, and appeared to scrutinise the liquid for half a minute before taking a small sip.
"This is almost worse than the coffee they had in the HKU staff rooms,” he said.
He took another sip.
"No, this is definitely worse than that.”
As Decker brewed the next one, Internationale sidled up to him. She looked pensive.
“You having one?” said Decker. “Or still worried about the symbolism?”
“My younger self would be pretty disappointed if I did,” said Internationale.
Decker furrowed his brow. He spoke his next words slowly, as if reciting something from a very foggy memory:
“I’ve been doing some reading. Did you know that the French Revolution started in a coffee shop?”
Internationale arched an eyebrow.
“Or it, uh, might have been the American one. I forget. But it was definitely something to do with a coffee shop. Anyway — this thing I was reading, it also said that the coffee bean was also some kind of economic… thing? That was really important? In the years before the Resource Wars?”
Internationale, now clearly trying to keep a straight face, nodded. “Go on.”
“The point being,” Decker said, “that this is the drink, uh... the drink of freedom fighters.”
Internationale rolled her eyes. "That is a truly awful attempt at talking me into having one.”
"Did it work, though?"
She laughed. "Eh, what's the harm, I guess.”
Decker handed her the cup he’d just made, and reached for a mug for himself, when all of a sudden--
"What in hell's name is going on in here?"
One by one, all the agents present turned around. Decker was last, and Central's steely glare was on him and him alone.
"Um,” said Decker.
He glanced over his shoulder at the others, all of whom were pointedly avoiding his gaze. He sighed.
"Coffee, ma'am?” he said, holding up a cup.
Central's eyebrows arched as high as anyone'd ever seen them go. She heaved a long, slow, sigh.
"I'm running a madhouse,” she said, to nobody in particular.
"Director Gladstone-” Nika began.
Central waved her off. "You know what? I'd rather not know why there's all this... cloak and dagger going on under my watch. Have your damn tea party.” She turned back to Decker. "Decker, I assume this anachronism is somehow your fault?"
"It was a team effort,” said Internationale.
Nika and Dr Xu piped in with their assent.
"Your 'team effort' smells burnt,” said Central. "There are Net sites that teach you how not to screw that up. You'd do well to use one.”
"Net sites,” Decker muttered to himself thoughtfully.
"Now,” Central continued, "I was going to announce we'd found the Corp's centre of operations, but you know what? Go... have your secret coffee cult ritual. Main deck in twenty, please.”
She stalked off, muttering to herself something that sounded like "fragging madhouse ".
Decker stared after her.
"It's not burnt,” he said.