previously: Rise of Hellion ch7: Dreams
I stood at attention with Tony by my side. The act felt a little silly considering we were both wearing civilian clothes. Maverick had insisted upon us performing this military formality while waiting for Axel to join us. “We seriously can’t sit down?” I asked, nervously fidgeting with the pocket of my white maxi skirt. After my meeting in the parking garage, I had managed to get back to my room to take a shower and change into my most professional clothing pieces; a maxi skirt, white polo shirt, and a suit jacket. (All my new maternity clothes were bought for me by Tony since I was not pulling an income.)
I was about to pull the pregnancy pain card (despite being barely in my second trimester) when Axel came through the door. “You may be seated,” he said in his booming voice. “Ms. Hellion, you’re looking quite lovely today.”
“Thank you, sir,” I said with a smile. There was something comforting about Axel’s presence, he was like the father I never had. Little did I know my good mood would be quickly dashed.
“May I ask why you didn’t arrive in uniform?” He seemed genuinely serious, despite the absurdity of his logic.
“Oh, what?” I wanted to point out that Tony was wearing only a black t-shirt and sweatpants. Luckily before I could say something stupid, I realized my partner was clad in TAC issue workout gear. “I have yet to be issued any official TAC clothing beyond work out attire.” It was the truth. And as my baby started to show, even that clothing was not fitting correctly. “I assumed I needed to be dressed formally for this meeting. Apparently, I was mistaken, and for that, I do apologize, sir.” I made sure to end with that word to make sure it was clear my apology was meant only for Axel and not Maverick.
“Well that’s what we’re here to discuss,” Axel said taking a seat on the desk. It took a moment for him to realize that the rest of us were at the mercy of Maverick’s tyrannical power trip. “You may be seated.”
“Thank you, Sir,” I said shooting Maverick a side glance.
“What I have here is an employment contract,” Axel explained.
“Is it a contract similar to what Tony has?” I was a little anxious at the thought, considering how my partner had been forced to sign away his life in exchange for superpowers.
“Not exactly,” Axel was about to reply when Maverick started to speak over him.
“Due to your family, childhood, and recent association with The Lifers, you would not qualify for a security clearance of any kind,” the intimidating woman added.
It was a little humorous that she assumed I was even the least bit concerned with having a clearance. “Yes, I understand.” That was all fine with me since Tony was the world’s most effective hacker. I just needed to make sure he would still be my companion. “So, what exactly would I be doing as an officially recognized employee?”
“For starters,” Axel muttered as he typed on the iPad. “Your first undercover mission.”
“Undercover?” I had a sick feeling in the pit of my stomach. “You want to send me back to Siberia?” The idea of never seeing Tony again made me want to cry.
“Not exactly,” Axel explained. As if sensing my impending emotional breakdown, he stood up and moved closer, placing his hand upon my shoulder. “Your mission, if you choose to accept it, will be to reunite with the Lifer agents currently residing in the local area.”
“There are multiple Lifer agents in Vancouver?” I asked. The idea somewhat lifted my spirits.
“Vancouver and neighboring territories,” Axel replied. Looking me in the eyes, he took hold of my hand. “Rest assured you will not be alone. Agent Deadlock will be monitoring you as a close-range security detail.”
“Close range security detail? Is that another word for backup?” I asked with a giggle. I knew it was a stupid question, but I genuinely wanted to know how close Tony would be. In my mind, I was picturing an FBI van following me around, but that seemed unrealistic.
“I would consider ‘partner’ to be a more accurate description of what I’m envisioning,” Axel explained with the confidence of a high school guidance counselor.
Tony sighed. “And what are you envisioning?”
“You and Hellion work very well as a team,” Axel explained while still holding my hand. “As such, you will be given plenty of creative flexibility in the design and execution of your assignment.”
His response seemed to only annoy Tony. “Yeah, I figured as much,” Tony replied through gritted teeth. “Creative flexibility is leadership-speak for: ‘you get to do all the actual leg work while I play cheerleader from my nice safe office.’”
Axel chuckled. “Point taken. In regards to what I’m envisioning; Hellion will be working on her own to reunite with associates that she had the previous contact with. All while you will do what you do best; watch from the shadows. Yes, I do acknowledge that you will be taking all the risks and assuming more of a leadership role. With your advanced knowledge of combat and strategy, I would expect nothing less.”
That answer appeared to satisfy Tony, but I was even more anxious than before. I was meant to go undercover on my own? The only reason I even survived my last encounter with Baron was because of Tony. I gripped Axel’s hand, taking a moment to control my breathing. The last thing I wanted was to have a full-blown panic attack. When I felt calm, I raised my hand and waited to be called on. “Axel?”
“What would be the end goal?” I asked, with a forced smile. I wanted to remain polite, but there was a certain topic burning a hole in my heart. “I still remember what you did to Anya or Toska.”
“Anya,” Maverick muttered. Her jaw clenched at the mention of the name. “I haven’t thought about her in a good minute.” She turned to Axel while grinding her teeth. “Can we move this along?”
Axel stood up, returning to his previous location. “Have you ever played chess?”
“A few times, as a computer game,” I replied honestly.
Tony snickered. “For real?”
I knew it was a little odd that I had never seen a real-life chess set, but where I grew up, it was not unusual. “What can I say? I’m white trash.”
“Regardless,” Axel said while clearing his throat. “I’m sure you know the basic premise of the game.”
I nodded. “The only way to secure a win is to capture your opponent’s king.”
“And to do that you must take down the queen,” Axel replied finishing my thought.
“Yeah,” I said with a nod. My voice was trembling. If he expected me to kill Kitsune I sure as hell would need Tony as backup. I forced a giggle as if this was all just a game. “But what about the rooks, bishops, and knights?”
“They will be dealt with on a case by case basis. Rest assured, witness protection or recruitment will be presented as alternatives to incarceration.”
“Sounds reasonable,” I said with a deep calming breath. In all honesty, the fact that he was being so kind and rational made me want to dive right in. “Where do I sign?”
Tony waved his hand in front of my face. “Maybe we should discuss this first?”
I might have considered his feelings, but not after he just implied that I was too stupid to make a decision for myself. “We can discuss it after I sign the iPad.” I looked to Axel for confirmation. “Right?”
“Yes, as soon as you agree to your part of the mission, I will send a separate copy to Tony outlining his role as well as intel on the task.”
Tony still seemed concerned. “Nicki you don’t have to do this.”
“Why wouldn’t I?”
“How about the fact you’re pregnant? What’s going to happen in the next few months when you can’t hide it?”
“That’s my problem, not yours,” I replied with my best imitation of Maverick’s confidence. I quickly grabbed the iPad and signed, before I had time to change my mind. “Here.” I forcibly handed the contract back to Axel. “I look forward to working with you.” It wasn’t like I had much of a choice.
Tony crossed his arms, slumped in his seat. “Are we done here?”
“Yes,” Axel replied maintaining his professional tone. “I’ll get those files to you.”
After the meeting, Tony ran off ahead of me. “Tony?” I watched as he took a shortcut out the fire escape. I had to assume he was going to get food before heading back to the room.
I took the long way, making sure to travel via the sky bridges to avoid going outside (and possibly getting pulled through a wormhole, again.) Of course, Tony still managed to get there before me.
My partner was sitting comfortably at the computer eating a sandwich from the cafeteria. “I brought you a salad, it’s in the mini-fridge.”
“Thanks, I guess.” It was clear he was mad at me or he would have brought back chips and chocolate. “So, what did you find out?”
Tony spun his chair around, facing me with a look of concern. “You want the good news or the bad news?”
“Good news?” I asked. With a look of child-like innocence, I went to grab my food and eat it while sitting cross-legged on the floor.
“Baron is most certainly alive, as he is one of five possible targets.”
“Targets?” I popped off the plastic lid and started to snack on chunks of plain romaine lettuce.
“We need to set our sights on one target but if that fails, we go on to plan B or C or D.”
“Ok, what’s the bad news?” I made sure to fill my mouth with more lettuce, carrots, and raw onion before he continued.
Tony pursed his lips and sighed. “Let’s’ just say you can’t catch a fish without bait. While I’m sure Baron and Toska would be willing to meet with you, in honor of your past relationship, others will not be as trusting. You’ll need to have a card to play.”
“Axel is giving me the battery?” I mumbled, sarcastically. There was no way that was the case.
“Yes and no,” he said as he leaned back. “How do I explain this?”
“For starters, you can talk to me like a normal human,” I grumbled like a toddler.
“Ok, well according to the files, you’re going to be given a fake battery, while the real item remains in its stasis tube to finish decoding. But that’s not the part that worries me. In order to properly sell the idea that you are in possession of the genuine battery, there will be an actual robbery that you would take part in.”
I nearly choked on my food. After running for a drink of water, I cleared my throat enough to reply. “That doesn’t seem too bad.”
“They will hurt you. It’s not a matter of if but when and how,” his voice was more serious than I’d ever heard.
“I doubt that,” I said with a scoff.
“They’ll need to make it look real.”
Now he was just being an asshole. “I’m a big girl, I can handle myself.”
“And the baby?”
“If I lose the baby, I lose the baby,” I replied with an abnormal level of arrogance. “You don’t need to worry about it.” I’ll just come crying to you when all of my insides leak out like a water balloon and I’m double over in (physical and emotional) pain.
“I’m worried about you, Nicki.”
“Don’t be.” I finally paused, taking time to realize how hurtful I was becoming. “You’ll be by my side, right?”
“If by ‘your side,’ you mean across the street on a rooftop or in a van.”
Why the hell was he trying so hard to scare me? “But we’ll be together, so worst-case scenario we can flee the country together.”
Tony nodded. My logic was sound. Needless to say, I was not looking forward to participating in a staged felony but that was an issue for a later time. “So, when does this all go down?”
“In two weeks.”
“Oh, ok.” I calmly placed my salad in the trash and flopped down on the bed. “Two weeks seems like more than enough time.” We were so screwed.
At least I did, in fact, get issued a uniform. It was solid blue with a holographic shift. This was clearly a tactical outfit (not something I could wear to blend in on base.) The level of comfort was all that mattered and I had to admit, it was one of the most comfortable leotards I’d ever worn.
As Axel previously explained, we were in charge of the details of the mission, but that would be after we left the base. For the attack on the battery the mission was as follows; at 1:24am (just before the changing of shifts,) it would all begin.
Climbing the fire escape, I would enter via the roof and make my way to the battery room. Armed with my knife (and with my prosthetic legs intact) I was able to pick the lock to enter the dark hallway. I looked around, careful of security forces, or any cameras that may have been installed since the last time I found myself in that particular building.
I knew the plan. Under the cover of rubber bullets and property damage, the real battery would be moved (somehow still connected to all of the servers) while I would escape with the replica. All I had to do was make it to the basement room. It went as well as could be expected.
I was allowed to make it inside the room, close enough to see the battery and all its connections. I guess they needed the footage of me touching the case, because the moment I did, I was hit with a smoke bomb followed by no less than ten rubber bullets to the back of my head.
I awoke outside the base, under a park bench. I pulled my legs to my chest, attempting to get some sleep. I wasn’t tired, but there was no way I was in any shape to run. That was when I felt it; a cold metal object slipped down my shirt. It was near my stomach as if drawn to my abdomen area. Gripping said item, it was clearly the battery (or a battery, anyway.) Holding the device, I felt a rush of energy. It was enough to get me to stand up and start walking in the direction of the highway.
I twirled the battery between my fingers, playing with it like a fidget toy. “Is this a tracking device?” I had been so focused on getting away from the base, I had not thought about how I would be able to reunite with Tony.
Was I even meant to? We had discussed the plan ahead of time; I was supposed to walk in the direction of the destroyed warehouse. But there was no mention of him meeting me. “Ow!” in my state of lost concentration I tripped over a rock, causing the battery to go flying. “Shit!”
I quickly ran for the item as it bounced down the road, almost getting run over by a fast-moving car. I knew I needed a better place to put this thing. I quickly made my way to an overpass, near a group of sleeping homeless people. I took a seat at the far end, covering myself with a torn-up trash bag. Under the shadows of the concrete bridge, I looked like I belonged.
“This brings back memories,” I said with a sigh. Who could have known that one day I would be looking back fondly on my days as a homeless pickpocket? I looked around to make sure there was no one watching as I disconnected my leg. I figured since it was a TAC invention there had to be a way to hide something within the framework of the prosthetic. After some trial and error, I found a place where I could insert the battery while also being able to get my leg back on. Upon standing up, the small chunk of metal rested comfortably in the joint of my knee.
I stood up slowly and took a few steps. This would work. Walking down the road, my heart was still telling me to look around to try and locate Tony. ‘No,’ I said to myself. ‘When you can’t find something, you look for it in the last place you saw it. With that in mind, I was off to find Baron.
As expected, the former Trader Joe’s warehouse was an empty lot. Enough time had passed for the rubble to be cleared (most likely thanks to a TAC clean-up crew) but not long enough to start any kind of effort to sell or rebuild. “Fuck, I need to pee,” I muttered. The sensation came on hard and intense with little time to evaluate my choices. “Trees, shrubs, and a dumpster?” How was the dumpster still there? The massive metal box that saved my life stood in the exact same corner of the parking lot.
With the corner perfectly hidden in the shade it would make an ideal toilet. Leaning against the cold steel I pulled down my pants and let out several hours’ worth of urine. I couldn’t help but notice how smooth the paint felt against my skin. After making myself decent I took a walk around the dumpster. The box had a brand-new coat of dye, making it look pristine. When I made it back to my toilet spot, I couldn’t help but notice the pattern my pee had made. There seemed to be a path carved into the ground. “A seam.” It was clear the dumpster was present because it served as a marker, a door to a hidden area. I just needed to find a way in.
The lid flaps were chained in place with several padlocks; I would need to get creative. Following the path of my pee, I could see the layout of the seam. In the corner, there appeared to be a series of extra marks. “Circuits?” one way to find out; I kicked the corner, first at the bottom then in the middle and then finally I punched the top. The three hits caused a series of blocks to move, creating an opening just large enough for a single person to squeeze through.
I expected to emerge in the open rectangle cavern of the dumpster but instead, I was stuck in a man-made cave. The entire room was filled with metal cubes, allowing me just enough space to be able to breathe and scoot forward. At least I assumed I was going forward. I very well could have been going in circles. There was no light source, I had to simply move based on instinct. “Keep moving.” I closed my eyes and turned out my palms. I had to tell myself I was safe and that this place had an end. Suddenly I felt an armored hand grab my wrist pulling me hard. I fell to my knees landing in an open room. I wanted to kiss the ground when suddenly I heard a voice.
“You know you’re not supposed to go through that door without armor,” said a familiar Caribbean accent.
“Baron?” Looking around from my seated position, I appeared to have landed in a pseudo-military base. Baron stood over me half-dressed in what could only be described as high-tech paintball gear, like something out of a videogame. “What is this place? Headquarters for Red vs Blue?”
“You don’t know the half of it,” Baron said as he turned away, running his fingers through his wavy hair. Behind him were other soldiers in various stages of undress, as well as a massive array of armor and weaponry.
Where was the exit? Looking down a dark hallway, I could hear the sound of slow heavily armored footsteps.
The figure who appeared was a tall humanoid, but that was all I could tell from where I stood. It wore full body armor the color of sand paired with an opaque black motocross helmet to conceal its identity. “You’re really fucking stupid, aren’t you?” the voice was male, with a southern accent.
“Are you talking to me?” I asked with a giggle. This had to be a joke.
The figure punched its chest, clearing its throat with a robotic hiss. “Yes, I am,” he replied in a deep, New York accent.
“I don’t know who you are but you sound like a New Jersey cab driver.”
“You think I’m that robot,” he said with a laugh.
“You’re not Nash,” I said nervously. My body took a step back all on its own. “You’re Feng.”
He hit his chest again, causing a country music riff to play. “Damn right I am,” he replied with a strong, confident Texas accent. “So nice to finally make your acquaintance, Miss Hellion. Or may I call you Nicki?”
“Depends, what’s your real name?”
“That’s not on the table. Mind if I ask why you’re here and why I should refrain from putting a bullet between your eyes? And don’t bother mentioning the baby. Even in its current state, I could farm it for parts.”
“In that case, Hellion will be fine.”
“Well, Miss Hellion,” the man said as he pulled up a seat. Sitting in the rusted metal folding chair, he spread his legs, giving his best impression of a cowboy. “I do believe you have a whole second question to address.” Feng patted his hip, drawing attention to a gun holster.
“I may or may not have swiped an item of TAC’s property.”
“With intent to sell?” Feng asked, switching back to his New York accent without even hitting himself.
“Yes, of course,” I replied. I was giving my best James Bond impression. Hopefully, my classy fake confidence would hide the fact that I was about to tell a complex lie made up completely off the top of my head. “I’m actually headed north to meet with him. I just needed a place to crash for the night.”
“Really?” Baron laughed from behind me. “How far north?”
“Alaska, just south of the main air force base.”
“In Anchorage?” Feng asked.
“Closer to Fairbanks.” I knew Anchorage didn’t sound right.
Feng gave an approving nod. I had passed his little test. “And what is this treasure you are hoping to unload?”
“A flash drive.”
“Containing what?” Feng asked. He removed his weapon from its holster. The gun matched his armor both in color and their ability to look like a toy.
Needless to say, I was not impressed. “That’s my business unless you’re offering to help me get to Alaska?” I stretched my back, reaching for the hidden compartment in my knee joint. With a few awkward movements, I was able to slip free the all-important device. I held the battery in my hand, unsure if this was the right move. Feng was an augmented human, like Tony. He could probably tell it was a fake.
“And what if I am?” Feng removed his helmet revealing a human face. The man that sat before me had tan skin hinting at Italian or maybe even Hispanic ancestry. His dark eyes were the color of charcoal. I had to admit those were the most intimidating part of his look, even more so than the robotic components making up his mouth, jaw, and upper chest. He parted his lips, revealing a human tongue. If he was human, I could make him mine.
I strutted like a supermodel, on my metal legs. Holding the battery between two fingers, I leaned over Feng, straddling his lap like a stripper giving a lap dance. I pressed my lips to his ear, as I slipped with battery back down my bra. “I look forward to our travels.”