Rebecca woke from what must have been only a brief moment of unconsciousness. Jason hadn't been kidding about causing an accident again. She moaned and pushed herself upright, found her seatbelt and unclasped it. At least she'd remembered to put that on.
She glanced across at Jason. He too was stirring. They'd gotten off easy. What was wrong with this guy; he couldn't even drive!
And he'd tried to kidnap her.
Rebecca swore and wrestled with the passenger door. She'd been such an idiot. Yeah, great idea to go see the strange man who'd randomly turned up and started following her! And then take him to breakfast! She should have gone to the police straight away, despite their inability to even dent the strange machine that had attacked her. The Peacekeeper. If she wasn't convinced Jason was a complete loon she would have said it was working for him.
The door finally popped open with a creak of protest. Its edge ground against the concrete barrier as Rebecca pushed her way through the gap. She strode away from the stricken vehicle.
Behind them, another vehicle had pulled onto the shoulder. Its passenger window rolled down. "Are you alright?" A woman in her mid-thirties, with a short red hairstyle, leaned across from the driver's seat.
"Yes," Rebecca paused, glancing back as she did at the wreck. "The man in that car kidnapped me. I think he must have lost control..."
This news barely seemed to faze the woman. "Okay. Just relax," she said calmly. "I actually work for the police; a consultant. I can help."
Finally, something was going her way. Rebecca nodded dumbly, unable to believe her luck.
"We'll get you out of here. I'll call for back up to come and deal with this man, but the important thing is to get you to safety. Come on." And with that the woman opened the door and gestured for Rebecca to climb inside.
Rebecca paused only briefly. The woman was of a slight build, almost a head shorter than her. Certainly not a threat. She wore a clean, crisp grey business suit. Beneath the cuff of her grey jacket Rebecca caught sight of the glint of blue metal. The woman's ID bracelet. She was definitely not an Unemployed.
Rebecca let out a sigh of relief. "Thanks." She climbed into the small white car and slumped back into the seat as they pulled back into the flow of traffic. She hoped the police would have things under control now and would only want to ask her a few questions. Then she could get back to her life. She couldn't believe only yesterday her biggest problem had been work. Maybe she should stop complaining about not being to ask certain questions. Not knowing what she was doing at work was far better than being kidnapped.
The woman had been speaking into a communicator, reporting back to have someone come to the crash site. She clicked this off and put it back into its cradle on the centre console. "Valerie Chase," she said, with the briefest of glances at Rebecca.
It took Rebecca a half-second to realise the woman was introducing herself. "Rebecca. Rebecca Forsythe."
"Ah, Rebecca," said Valerie. She smiled faintly. "I think the police are looking for you. Just for a chat."
"Yeah, I know," Rebecca blushed. "I should've gone to them first instead of some crazy guy who was liable to kidnap me. What was I thinking?"
Valerie nodded without taking her eyes off the road. "I hear you. But you should be more careful. We are here to help you and believe me, the police are a much better option than some crazy man."
"Yeah, in hindsight."
Valerie was serious and calm but at least she seemed interested in making sure she was okay. That was a welcome relief. Rebecca sunk further back into her seat, watching the buildings and other cars drift by.
It didn't take long to arrive at the police station. Rebecca stepped out and gazed up at the building. Maybe a dozen stories, the steel and glass encased complex was of a pale blue grey sheen. She hadn't been here before, as she'd never had much reason to go to the police for anything. There were stations scattered throughout the City, roughly one for each of the concentric circles that divided the huge metropolis. Roughly halfway towards the City's centre, where most of the engineering and sciences were concentrated, and where Rebecca spent most of her time, was where this one was located.
"Relax," Valerie stood beside her and smiled wryly. "No one here is going to kidnap you." She led Rebecca inside and handed her over to one of the officers.
Rebecca let herself be taken into one of the interview rooms, with the assurance that someone would be there to see her in a moment. She was told the questions would not take long. That was just fine. This would soon be over and she could get back to her life.
He'd allowed himself to linger in a daze for far too long. Jason dragged himself out of the disabled vehicle and swore. The crash hadn't knocked him around as much as his previous encounter with the bus, but his body still protested. Those nanites hadn't done as good a job as they should have. Typical.
A line of traffic roared beside him and he backed away until he could lean against the concrete barrier. He looked desperately about him for Rebecca but he couldn't see the young woman anywhere.
A battered green vehicle swerved from the river of machines and stopped less than a meter from the man on the road shoulder. The passenger door was thrown open.
"You'd better get in; cops will be here any minute."
Jason didn't need a second invitation. He threw himself into the passenger seat and slammed the door shut even as the vehicle leapt back into traffic to the blaring of horns. Inside the car, with the traffic noises dulled, Jason could hear his own jagged breathing. He concentrated on the sound, soon bringing his thudding heart under control. It was only when he was sure he was operating with some degree of clarity that he finally spoke. "Thanks, Nick."
Nick was focused. He had one hand on the wheel, one on the gear stick. He deftly weaved his way between vehicles. Fast enough to put distance between them and the accident, not too fast that undue attention might be attracted. He swerved onto an exit with a brief squeak of tyres, taking the vehicle from the main thoroughfare and down to a network of side streets.
"No, problem." Nick glared at him from beneath thick, dark brows, his lips twisted into a frown.
"You've been following me," Jason pressed. It was a guess, but from the little Jason knew of the young man a good one.
"Only for the last hour or so and only because you went and messed up," Nick growled. "I let you do your thing, your way. Then I hear on the news that some creature's attacked Rebecca's apartments? I had no idea what had happened to either of you! Not until Steph picked up her buying clothes." He glanced over his shoulder and Jason realised he was not the only passenger.
The young woman in the rear centre seat was hunched over a laptop. Her long black hair was tied back and her eyes moved rapidly behind thin-framed glasses as she took in the contents of the screen before her. "I think we're good. They haven't put out anything on your car. Don't think they realise we're important or maybe they just didn't see us."
"Good," Nick let out a sigh. He patted the steering wheel. "I'm getting just a little bit attached to this baby."
"It's just a car," Jason growled.
"This car just saved your butt," Nick shot back. "Steph, are you picking up anything on the police frequencies that can tell us where Rebecca is?"
Steph paused briefly. "No, not yet."
"I'm fairly sure someone picked her up," said Nick. "I saw a white compact pulling off but then I had to stop for you," he fixed Jason with another glare, "and I didn't see where it went."
"A white car?" Steph pressed. "You can tell a 2248 Hellraiser from a '49; can you be more specific?"
"No," Nick admitted with a grimace. "It was a small white car. I can't identify the model..."
Jason was already on edge when Nick had mentioned the car's colour. "Damn."
"What is it?"
Jason could feel his heart rate rising again. Why hadn't he paid more attention?! "I saw that same car behind us when we drove off. I should've... now I'm certain it was a Peacekeeper."
"But I thought you said a Peacekeeper was some robot looking thing?" said Nick. "Not a car."
"You don't know anything about Peacekeepers!" Jason snapped. "They've got adaptive nanotechnology. They could be almost anything their Controller wants."
"Maybe. But I do know about cars. And I know about this damn City; a lot more than you do! You nearly got yourself and Rebecca killed. This is my turf, and maybe if you would listen to me..."
"You know the road rules. And you know a 2248 from a... whatever," Jason waved a hand dismissively. "And you might know a bit more than the average City slicker but you still have barely a clue!" It was bad enough that Rebecca hadn't taken him on! Jason was not having any more of it.
Nick was silent for a moment, then: "I'm still helping you, aren't I?"
"Yes," Jason admitted. "But I'm starting to wonder if you've got an ulterior motive..." He glanced in the rear view mirror. But Steph was still staring intently at her laptop; she hadn't heard his comment. Jason had sent her ahead of him months before, to locate Rebecca and make sure they could safely extract her. It wasn't that he hadn't trusted her to make the right decisions to complete the mission on her own; he wouldn't have sent her otherwise. Recruiting Rebecca's brother had made sense, especially since he was so disillusioned with the City. But a part of him did wonder if Steph had let her emotions get the better of her when she'd recruited the good looking young man.
Nick glanced in the rear view mirror too and flushed. "My only motive is finding my sister safely," he said quickly. "And don't talk to me about ulterior motives, so far all I can tell is that you want her to use as some tool." He huffed, then added in a quieter tone: "So, yeah, you might be right. Steph's the only reason I'm doing this."
"I've got something," said Steph, startling both men. But she'd been concentrating on her laptop and had heard nothing of their recent conversation. "Someone's called in your accident; says their bringing a young woman into the nearest station that's of interest in a recent apartment fire."
"Alright." Jason drew in a breath. "We still have a chance of getting her back."
Nick's voice was low. "She'd better be okay."
"Thanks for bringing her in. We'll take it from here."
Derek was a tall, middle aged man, smartly dressed in a navy blue suit. Valerie had not dealt with him before but it was immediately obvious he had an over-inflated idea of his own importance. It was not worth allowing his arrogance to irritate her though. It was easily dealt with.
Valerie raised her left arm, exposing the identification bracelet she wore. "No, I will."
The man looked at it, frowning as he squinted to read the ID number. Valerie momentarily wondered why he didn't bother scanning it but then Derek grunted. "401 series. You're a Retrencher."
He was showing off.
"Yes," said Valerie, with a faint smile. It was rare to find someone in the City who would toy with the largely unspoken rule of keeping out of everyone else's business. Without going so far as impeding the will of the System, of course. Derek didn't necessarily need to know she was a Retrencher, just that she had interest in Rebecca and he had to defer to her. A scan of her bracelet would have revealed this fact and it would have been up to Valerie to fill him in on her stakes, if she wished. And if she herself wasn't too unafraid of that unspoken rule to reveal her business.
But as a Retrencher it was her job to deal with those who had broken this rule, or done something similar that resulted in them knowing too much information. Or if they had somehow found out they were a Controller, when they weren't supposed to be. She highly doubted she could be called upon to 'retrench' herself.
Derek likely had been around long enough to know exactly what he could get away with. And he still had his job. Perhaps he had a right to some degree of arrogance.
"Alright," said Derek. "You obviously have some things you need to hear from her, but so do we. We need to know what happened to our people at this girl's apartment. I would appreciated it if I'd be... allowed to ensure our questions are answered."
The interview room contained a single desk, two chairs, and a one-way window. Rebecca was slouched in one of the chairs. "You again?" she asked as Valerie and Derek entered. She sat herself up straighter in the chair, perhaps a little self-consciously. But this appeared to be more from being caught slouching than any concern she had with her confinement.
Valerie allowed herself a small smile. "Yes. I thought it might put you at ease if I'm here; you've been through enough today already." She nodded in Derek's direction, without really looking at him. "Derek here will ask the questions."
Derek leaned his big frame forward and briefly shook Rebecca's hand, as if he expected he might break her fingers.
The slightest frown creased Rebecca's lips. "Hi..."
"I thought we might start with what happened last night," said Derek. He pulled out the chair across the table from the young woman and settled himself into it.
Rebecca proceeded to fill them in on her escape from the apartment and the machine that had attacked her. The words tumbled from he mouth as if she thought she might explode if they stayed within her. Certainly, Valerie could detect no hint she was trying to conceal anything. The only time her pace slowed was when she told them what the machine had done to her phone and the lift.
Derek asked Rebecca to repeat this part. "I'm fairly sure what you described could only have been done by a Controller, not that machine," he added with a small chuckle.
Rebecca shrugged. "I don't know. Maybe a Controller was in the building..."
"If you say so."
"You don't believe me, do you?" Rebecca scowled.
"It just doesn't make sense," Derek shrugged. "That's all."
Valerie was careful to keep her expression neutral. It was sometimes difficult to conceal her use of the Peacekeeper she retained from her work below. Valerie was always careful to ensure it was impossible to trace back to her. Unfortunately, this time its use had caused some collateral. But that had happened before, and if the System took issue it would direct her to halt its use. But if she had to work as a Retrencher, she would at least use some decent equipment.
Rebecca was still scowling at Derek. "Wonder if this was how I made Jason feel," she muttered.
Valerie tensed. "Jason who?" she barked.
"You mean the man who kidnapped you?" Derek pressed. "Maybe you should tell me a bit more about him."
"Well, I can tell you as much as he told me about himself, whether what he said was true or not..." said Rebecca. She glanced up at Valerie. "His name was Jason Gray."
It was everything Valerie could do to keep her expression neutral. But she couldn't stop the subconscious movement of her left hand to the slightly mis-coloured skin of her right. Jason Gray?! It had never occurred to her that there could have been rebel involvement with this girl. Sure, Valerie's job summons had included mention that Rebecca's datafiles had recently been illegally accessed. The rebels would snap up every Controller they could get their hands on but she had never seen or heard of them operating in the City.
Why hadn't she been more suspicious when she felt the presence of another Controller; when she'd taken over the cars systems?! But the attempt to snatch those systems back had been so brief and weak she had completely dismissed it. If it had been a rouge Controller, it was one who only had the ability to control a blender with any dexterity.
But Jason Gray? Of course it had always been a possibility was still alive. But here? The thought made Valerie's skin crawl. Whatever he was doing in the City he could pose a very serious threat. And she'd let him slip through her fingers! How could she not realise the man in the car was him? He may have even fumbled his control of the vehicle on purpose, possibly the reason he had been driving manually in the first place, to divert attention.
If the System had given her more information, instead of treating her like some stupid City-born, she would have figured this out earlier. But it probably didn't even know Jason was here. She would have to be the first to report it.
'Retrenching' those who had inadvertently discovered they had Controller abilities may have paid well enough. But it could never make up for the humiliation Valerie had suffered from the loss of her previous position. Jason Gray would not mess things up for her again.
Valerie closed her eyes for the briefest of moments. She barely had to concentrate to convince the mobile phone in her pocket to let out a bleep, as if it had just received a message. She took it from her pocket and barely glanced at the screen. "Sorry," she smiled stiffly at Rebecca. "I have to take this."
She slipped outside and moved quickly down the corridor, then let herself into an unoccupied interview room. She dialled a number.
"I'm calling in a need to know," she said once the call connected.
The line was silent, save for a faint beep. A computer was recording, but Valerie knew that the line was being monitored closely.
She drew in a breath. "Jason Gray is in the City."