Busting the Bunker
Chuck hadn't slept well the night before the parachute jump. Between Sarah being gone, the late night run to Bob Hope Airport, and Clara screaming like a banshee at 4AM, sleep just had not happened. Ellie apologized because Clara was still on Chicago time, but it almost sounded like she thought a 6AM wake-up call of that volume, shrillness, and duration would have been perfectly normal and acceptable.
Food preparation that morning didn't go very well either. Chuck couldn't remember where Sarah kept the blender. In fact, he wasn't even sure they owned a blender. Surely, someone had given them one as a wedding gift, but Chuck thought the appliance was mainly good for making shakes in the summer or making margaritas at a party. They'd been too busy ever since the wedding to think about anything but the most impromptu of gatherings. They certainly hadn't opened up a new blender and tried it out.
Chuck offered to make pancakes but Ellie pointed out he didn't have any eggs. He would have borrowed some from Morgan and Alex, but Ellie decided she couldn't live without her smoothie and said she would buy one on the way to her appointment with Dr. Dreyfus.
Then she refused to take Sarah's car, citing baby mess and the fact Sarah probably thought her a reckless driver after that intentional accident. Ellie called a cab, gathered all her baby paraphernalia and her research notebook, strapped Baby Clara into a car seat that doubled as a stroller, and left with a wave and a shouted goodbye.
Chuck ate a couple of pop-tarts alone. He didn't even have Morgan to keep him company on the walk to work because Morgan had stayed the night at Castle, giving obsessive levels of attention to planning Mom's and Sarah's backpacks and making sure they had good parachutes.
He and Morgan both took naps in Castle while they waited for the mission. Chuck felt a lot better physically after sleeping, microwaving a Hot Pocket, and downing a Red Bull, but he still felt badly about not connecting with Ellie. If she hadn't insisted that the main reason for her trip was doing tests on him, he would have felt worse. He consoled himself with the knowledge she'd have to catch up with him eventually.
"Castle, this is Vaca Villa. You copy?" came over the scrambled radio frequency.
Morgan was closer to the console, so he answered. "Roger that, Miguel. What's up?"
Miguel? Chuck was impressed Morgan knew this guy's voice well enough to identify him. He didn't comment on the silly code name they'd given their base. Cow House probably lost something in translation.
"Birdie is in flight. Conditions muy bueno. Thought you'd like to know. Over."
"Muchas gracias, amigo," Morgan said. "We'll take it from here. Castle out."
Chuck felt badly that he couldn't be there, not only because he would feel utterly helpless if anything went wrong while he was stuck thousands of miles away, but if he was really honest with himself, he was jealous he was missing out on the fun. Parachuting out of a plane was quite the rush as long as you planned on it and knew where you were going. And how weird was it to be jealous of his mother because she was off saving the world with Sarah, while he sat in a basement in Burbank?
It wasn't long before Mom and Sarah turned on their ear pieces and started transmitting. Chuck did his best to bury his feelings and focus. If he didn't do well quarterbacking, Sarah might ask Beckman for another support team and cut him out of the picture completely. Besides, this wasn't about him.
The jump went off without a hitch. Chuck was relieved to hear Sarah joking with Morgan and even thanking him. Was she remembering him or just warming up because he was doing such a good job?
He and Morgan both watched the video feed from Sarah's night-vision goggles as she and Mom crept down to the bunker. No laser detection system or land mines showed up, which was great, but Chuck couldn't shake the feeling this was all a bit too easy. The door had a pretty standard digital lock, which Sarah nailed in less than three seconds with her electronic wizardry. She put the digital lock-picker away, placed her hand on the door, and nodded to Mary.
"Sarah, honey, you might want to turn off your night vision," Chuck reminded her. If there were lights on inside, she'd be blinded.
The green illumination abruptly disappeared and the monitor went black. "Got it," Sarah said. Did she sound annoyed at the reminder? He couldn't tell. "Opening door now."
Chuck held his breath. Anything could happen, from exploding booby traps to gunfire to kung fu. But they couldn't see or hear anything and the suspense was killing him.
"Dark inside," Mom reported.
"Thanks, Mrs. B," Morgan said. "We don't hear anything. How about you?"
"Humming," Mom said.
"What, like 'Zippity-Doo-Da'?"
She scoffed. "No, it's a mechanical humming, like big fans."
"Copy that," Morgan said aloud while giving Chuck his 'what the heck?' face.
Chuck shook his head silently in return. Maybe it was a ventilation system.
"Switching to infra-red," Sarah said.
The display lit up like a Christmas tree. Behind the wall where Mom and Sarah stood was an expansive room. Evidently, they had altered the blueprint and taken out a bunch of the walls. The ceiling had hundreds of very warm light fixtures, all blazing like the devil's tanning salon. A few human bodies also showed up on the screen, but mostly far away and obscured by something in the way.
The color pattern of the obscuring objects was hard to decipher at first, but then Chuck remembered Rodchenko was an agricultural scientist. "Plants," he whispered. Not that he had any good reason to whisper. It was just kind of tentative and eerie.
Sarah scanned the room beyond the wall, perhaps testing his hypothesis. She finally found a definitive shape and stopped to let a picture form in yellowish-green coolness.
"That looks like an ear of corn," Morgan said.
Mom whispered back, "Why would they waste all this electricity to grow a bunch of corn underground? The power has to be enormous."
Sarah panned around and then landed on two humans who were very close. Their size and stance spoke volumes. "Guards outside the door," she whispered, presumably to her partner.
"Sarah, if all they're doing is coming up with a new strain of popcorn, then nobody's doing anything wrong."
"We use tranq guns," the two women said in harmony. Sarah's display showed them both readying weapons.
Chuck squelched the tremendous urge to comment.
"Chuck, you still there?" Mom asked. "I expected more gloating from you."
"I'm here." Trying very hard to keep focused on you without being jealous. And that wasn't easy.
"Good. When we get in there, Sarah is going to take out the guards and I'm going to get you a closeup of this corn. See if you can flash and figure out why it's underground and not in a field where it should be."
The infra-red display abruptly ended. They knew the next room would be lit, so they switched to normal spy goggles. Morgan had Sarah's view on his monitor and Chuck had his mother's. Both monitors were easy to view from either chair.
Sarah opened the door and light flooded in. The guards rushed her, but the soft whoosh of tranq darts downed them quickly. Sarah's view showed they had guns, but they hadn't drawn them. She gathered said guns from their holsters.
"Good thinking, honey," Chuck said.
"The corn, Chuck," Mom urged, a little too scoldingly, he thought.
"I'm looking, Mom, but no—" The Intersect finally obliged when Mom opened up the silks to reveal something that looked like brains. "Whoa. Okay. That's corn smut."
Morgan burst out laughing. "Did you just talk dirty to your mother?"
"No, that grey glob stuff. It's a fungus called 'smut'. They call it huitlacoche in Mexico. It's considered a delicacy."
Morgan gasped. "That can't be right. Huitlacoche is black. And it's great, by the way. Food of the gods! Why would anyone call it 'smut'?" He was downright indignant anyone had insulted something he considered delicious.
"It turns black when you cook it," Chuck said, reporting one of the many facts he'd picked up in his flash.
"Wait. People eat fungus?" Mom sounded a bit grossed-out.
Sarah joined the discussion: "Mushrooms and truffles are fungus too. Nothing wrong with eating a fungus."
Chuck attempted to answer Morgan's question. "The USDA has a major vendetta against this stuff because it ruins corn. Maybe they named it 'smut'." Their fanaticism against it was probably why it was in the Intersect at all.
Sarah started walking down the rows of corn. Every ear she checked had a lobe of the fungus. "It looks like they're all infected. Maybe that's what this is, a nursery for huitlacoche."
Mom jumped in, her voice hushed. "But why do it underground? It can't be cost effective to grow like this, and they certainly didn't need Dr. Nickolai Rodchenko just to grow a common fungus."
Sarah looked at Mom. "We need to find him."
Mom's glasses showed her gathering a sample of the huitlacoche before discarding the ear she had picked. She then caught up to Sarah, who was headed toward where they'd seen humans in their infra-red scan, on the other side of the indoor field.
They scanned everywhere, but didn't find more guards. The humans turned out to be wearing lab coats. They were all writing on clipboards or testing ears of corn with scientific instruments.
Mom growled under her breath. "If Beckman sent us down here to harass farmers and science geeks..." She didn't finish the sentence, but added belatedly, "Sorry, Chuck."
Morgan cleared his throat. "We're not geeks, we're nerds, Mrs. B."
She blew an exasperated, "Whatever."
Chuck winked at his buddy. He was doing a good job of breaking up the tension.
Multiple tranq swooshes sounded and the geeks slumped to the ground. Mom and Sarah checked all their faces, but none was Rodchenko. They moved swiftly and smoothly toward the door.
According to the specs gathered from the satellite photos, it appeared most of the bunker had been devoted to this vast underground growing field. Chuck expected the rest to be laboratories, but they couldn't be very big.
The hall beyond the door was dark, but someone found the light. Mom gasped at what the light revealed: Four jail cells with iron bars and toilets, but no beds. The closest cell held a woman and two young girls, all disheveled, underfed, and dirty. The center two cages were empty. The last cell held a man in a blood-stained shirt. His face looked like he'd been beaten, but it was definitely Rodchenko.
Mom rushed to his cell, Russian spewing forth like a cascade. The Intersect gave Chuck an instant language lexicon. Chuck wasn't sure how much Russian Sarah knew or if she had lost any of it in the brain melt that took all her memories. But Morgan was definitely not following, so he attempted to help him understand.
"It's Rodchenko. They kidnapped him and his family. They used his wife and daughter to force him to work for them."
"Who?" Morgan whispered.
They both watched their screens as Sarah found keys for the cells and freed the women first. They ran to the other cell and into the arms of their father and husband. Mom gave them a few seconds for a tearful reunion before she returned to drilling Rodchenko.
"Who did this?" Chuck translated quietly.
"Carlos Rodriguez and Hans Petrovich." Chuck flashed, but he didn't have time to concentrate on any of the new information.
"Why? What's going on?"
"You are American, right? You will not leave us here? You will give us asylum?"
"Of course, Nickolai. It's all right. Just tell me what's going on here." Mom's voice sounded just like when she talked to Clara. Chuck didn't try to convey that in his translation. Morgan could probably catch it from her tone.
"The corn smut. They made me engineer a super-contagious strain of the fungus. It has a nano-virus helper. It spreads like nothing ever before. They mean to wipe out all the corn crops in China and United States."
"I don't know. I am prisoner, forced to do their bidding. They tortured my little girls and my wife. Did you catch them? Is the fungus contained?"
Mom's face loomed large in Sarah's field of view and Sarah stared back in Mom's.
"Ay caramba," Morgan whispered darkly.