"You really want to get yourself killed?"
Nick glared sidelong at Jason from the driver's seat. His frustration was growing by the minute. They were parked outside the police station. They were not calling undue attention to themselves where they were, there were many other parked cars there, and whilst the risk would increase as soon as Nick set his plan into motion, he knew it was not as great a risk as Jason seemed to be suggesting.
He'd thought things would pick up once Jason arrived in the City; that there might be a little bit of action. He hadn't expected to be constantly arguing with the man and having every suggestion he offered not only ignored but shot down in the most irritating manner Jason could muster.
"I want to get myself killed?!" Nick snapped. "You've already tried to kill yourself twice now. And the second time you put Rebecca in danger too."
"He's not trying to be difficult, Nick," said Steph. She reached forward and squeezed Nick's shoulder. "We do need to be careful. And I can get Nick in and out of there safely, Jason, promise."
Nick drew in a breath, trying to calm himself. "Yeah, Jason, just let me try and get her out. I know I can do this. I mean, I can't stuff it up anymore than you have already."
Jason frowned, staring out the windshield as he thought. Why couldn't he realise things worked differently here? Doing things his way was causing more problems than it solved. If he wanted to do everything himself why had he asked for his help? Just to be his ride?
Jason finally let out a sigh. "Alright. It's probably less risky for you to go in there. But you don't know what they've got her there for, whether it's just because of what happened at her apartment or if they're on to us..."
Nick shrugged. "You're the one who keeps saying how ignorant everyone in the City is. They're cops; they just want to find out what happened to their guys."
"Just be careful."
Nick slipped out of the car and paused at the rear window as Steph handed him a tiny piece of equipment. He started to head up the concrete steps that led to the station, but then turned as a thought occurred to him and called back over his shoulder: "If you've gotta leave without me, Steph's driving."
Nick didn't wait for a response but jogged the rest of the way up the stairs. This first bit would be easy and he would accomplish it best if he appeared confident and did not hesitate. Inside the glass sliding doors was a waiting area and a front desk. Nick approached the desk and flashed a smile at the woman sitting behind it. "Hi there. I'm trying to find out about my sister - something happened to her apartment last night and I can't get in contact with her. I think she may have come here."
"Of course," the receptionist looked up at him through thick, black rimmed glasses. "What's your sister's name?"
"Rebecca Forsythe," Nick said. His voice was steady and he hoped he appeared calm. But he could feel his heart rate increase and every muscle was tensed; he was ready to bolt at a seconds notice.
The woman checked her computer. The keys of the keyboard clicked and then she looked over the top of her glasses at Nick. "I'm going to need to see some ID."
Nick allowed his ID bracelet to be scanned. He was already positive Rebecca was here. He trusted Steph's tracking skills too much to doubt it. What put him on edge was his activities of the last few months and the fear that these had somehow made it onto his record. It would be just his luck that that bloody too helpful cop had recorded something about him being out on the cross bridges for no reason. He just hoped Jason's opinion of the City and its occupants ignorance was well based.
"She's in an interview right now," said the receptionist. "She's fine. If you'd like to take a seat you can wait for her to finish."
Nick thanked her and then moved to sit in one of the chairs in the waiting area. If they were happy to share information of her whereabouts with her brother that must mean Rebecca wasn't in any serious trouble. Yet. It was better to act quickly. He thrust his hands into his pockets with an air of nonchalance, found the device Steph had given him, and activated it.
Immediately all the fire alarms in the building started to scream. Nick stood back to his feet, attempting to affect a look of slow-witted confusion.
"That's strange," the receptionist muttered. "We might have to evacuate. I'm not sure what's happening."
"Should I wait for my sister, or..."
"Nick!" The familiar voice brought him spinning about. He had not even realised how he had feared for her safety, not until Rebecca barrelled into him and threw her arms around his neck. "What are you doing here?"
Nick gripped onto her and briefly squeezed his eyes shut. Thank gods. She was there in his arms; she was safe. But he didn't let himself dwell there for long. "Bec," he pushed her back, "we have to get out of here. Now."
Rebecca rolled her eyes. "I'm sure it's not that bad..."
And then the alarms fell silent.
"See, just a false alarm," Rebecca shrugged. "What are you doing here anyway? Not that I mind; I haven't seen you in ages."
Nick felt the hair on his arms stand on end. Rebecca's words barely registered. Steph was better than this. The alarms should still be going off! He grabbed his sister by the hand. "Come on, we have to go!"
"Hang on a minute." A middle aged man approached from the direction Rebecca had come from. "I've still got to check with Valerie you're good to go. That was obviously a false alarm, so we can't go letting all our suspects escape."
"Come on, Derek, now I'm a suspect?"
"That was a joke."
He couldn't steal Rebecca away without a distraction. It was too suspicious. He'd probably just end up getting himself detained, even if it was simply for making a nuisance of himself. He had come in here with no back up plan. Could he wait for her? If he did would they even let her go?
The overhead lights flickered and the alarms began to scream again. The computer behind the reception desk made a loud pop and died. There were two televisions in the waiting area and these both flicked through channels erratically. Their screens finally cracked, one after the other, and spewed black smoke.
This was most definitely not part of a fire drill. Derek looked about him in a brief moment of confusion before his gaze hardened. "You stay right here," he said to Rebecca. Then he dashed back up the corridor. In the chaos there was something he should be doing and whatever that something was was more important than keeping an eye on Rebecca.
Whatever Steph was doing it was working! Nick grabbed his sister by the arm and dragged her towards the glass outer doors. "Come on!"
Rebecca pulled away from his grip. "No! Just wait a second; you don't know what's going on! This looks like what that Peacekeeper thing was doing, or the guy that's been following me. I'm not in trouble; the police are helping me. It's safer if we stay here."
"No, they're not! You're in danger; you have no idea what's going on."
"Nick!" Rebecca raised her voice, cutting over him. "You don't know what's happened to me in the last few days. What do you have against the cops anyway?"
Why did she always have to argue?! He didn't have the time to explain; it would take too long and he could never out-argue his sister when she got something, anything, in her head. But he couldn't sneak her out when she was making so much noise. "You're just going to have to trust me."
The lights died completely. The receptionist had moved from behind her desk and was urging those in the waiting area outside.
Nick grabbed Rebecca by the shoulders and drew her close again. "Bec," he said, speaking right into her ear to be heard over the surrounding chaos. "Do you remember the night Dad left?"
The unexpected hug made Rebecca pause. Or perhaps it was the question. "Yes," she eventually replied.
"He didn't leave. He was taken. And they're going to come and get you now if I don't do something about it." For a moment she said nothing and Nick feared she was not going to listen to him.
"Damn it." Rebecca held him for a moment longer and then pulled away. She grasped Nick's hand again. "Okay, let's get out of here."
The evacuation almost made it too easy. Nick and Rebecca slipped out the glass doors on the heels of the small crowd of civilians and officers. No one paid them any mind and Derek was nowhere to be seen. The plague of electronic mayhem Steph had visited on the station was doing its job.
They spilled out into the sunlight. Nick shaded his eyes with a hand, squinting in the sudden brightness. He spotted Steph at the open rear door of his car, waving madly at them. But wasn't she on the computer causing all this havoc?
"Hey, wait..." Rebecca's ground to a halt and Nick had to stop himself so he didn’t drag his sister down after him. She was staring down at the car. Jason was on the pavement, right in front of the bonnet. He had a gloved hand stretched out towards the police station. His full focus was on the building. The chaos inside was his doing.
"He's with you?! You do realise that man tried to kidnap me!'
Nick's free hand clenched into a fist. "I know. But you have to trust me."
"Nick, hurry up!" Steph shouted. Order given, she opened the rear door and climbed in.
Rebecca gave in and allowed Nick to lead her down to the car. "You better know what you're doing," she growled at him.
"It'll be okay," Nick said as he barrelled her into the rear seat after Steph. "I promise." He slammed the door and then dashed around the back of the car to the driver's side. "Jason!" The man was still focused on the building. Nick slammed a hand on the car's roof. "Hey, old man! You're done, we're out, let's go!"
That got his attention. Jason piled into the passenger seat and Nick jumped in too. The car's engine started with a splutter. Nick pumped the accelerator to make sure it wasn't going to stall.
"Go!" Jason shouted at him. He looked terrified.
"What the hell do you think I'm doing?!" Nick snapped back. He threw the car into gear and stomped the pedal again. The vehicle tore away from the kerb.
Something was wrong. As soon as she heard the alarms Valerie knew this was not simply a fire or drill. She closed her eyes and let her mind drift into the police station's security and fire systems. The Control allowed her easy access. It took nanoseconds to establish that this was nothing but a simple hack, not the work of another Controller, and only a few seconds more to shut the alarms down.
Valerie opened her eyes and drew in breath. Someone was trying to get the girl out. Setting off the alarms was a simple ploy but it still worried her. She stepped from the interview room and made her way down the hallway, back to where they held Rebecca.
That was when the chaos stuck. Overhead lights flickered and died. The crackle of electricity came from within the walls; unseen circuitry was being systematically compromised and destroyed.
This was far more worrying. Not breaking stride, Valerie again sent her mind reaching into the building's systems. She came up against a wall of destruction. She drew back and her pace slowed. The destruction could not spread through to herself, but it had thrown her off. She had not come against that immense destructive power in a long, long time. There was another Controller in there. She had to go back in.
Into the systems she went and just observed. Even with all her skills she could not stop the rouge Controller who was systematically going through every system in the building and destroying it. It was crude, but effective. And it was familiar. She had only ever met one person who could so effectively tear apart any system.
What did he want with the girl? The need to know department had not had many answers. What she had gained was permission to keep on pursuing Rebecca. She had been given no specific instructions on what to do about Jason.
Either this meant that they were letting her take him down or within short minutes, once the information found its way to the right people, someone more important would be sent and she'd be pushed out of the way.
She would have to move quickly. As she continued down the hall, she let her mind sit just within range of the destruction. She didn't have to do anything; it was not long before its initiator faltered. He had noticed her presence.
Valerie smiled faintly. "Hello, Jason."
"Just keep driving!"
"Jason, relax! No one’s following us." Nick let out an exasperated sigh. "Steph, tell him..."
The young woman in the backseat beside Rebecca, Steph, sat completely focused on her laptop, fingers flying across the keyboard and her face awash in the blue glow of the screen. "Jason," she said, not breaking eye contact with her computer, "You haven't lost your touch. You've completely messed up the police systems. I agree with Nick, no one's going to be following us."
What the hell was her brother doing with Jason Gray?! Rebecca still had no idea what was going on and his presence only marginally settled the racing of her heart. If she'd known it might have saved her a whole lot of angst!
"It's not the cops I'm worried about!" Jason snapped back. He glanced over his shoulder but didn't make eye contact with Steph, or Rebecca. He was looking intently out the rear window, his eyes darting about and his face covered in sweat.
"Then what?" Nick threw the car into a corner. He was going fast, though perhaps not fast enough to cause undue attention. The speed limits in the City were high and if there was no traffic you could get a good run. Nick was a good driver; this didn't worry Rebecca.
Jason drew in a breath. "When I was attacking those systems, I felt something. Another Controller."
"Great," Steph muttered. "That's all we need."
"She's going to come after us."
"What, the Controller?" said Nick. "How do you know it's a she?" The car took another corner but this time instead of the smooth, though fast, turn that usually characterised Nick's driving the vehicle wobbled and briefly lost traction. "Hey, my handling's going funny..."
"I knew it!" Jason slammed a hand down on the dashboard. "She's after us; she's here; she's trying to hijack your car..."
Nick slapped his hand away. "You're not controlling this baby after what I've seen you do!" The car swung hard to the left; the tyre just touched the kerb before Nick pulled it back into their lane.
Rebecca looked over her shoulder, out the back window. Nick had taken them down one of the tunnels under the City and the lighting had changed from bright sunlight to the stark white of fluorescents mounted in the tunnel's ceiling. There was little traffic down here this time of day. There was only one other car Rebecca could see; a small white compact which had just come into view behind them. As it approached, Rebecca recognised it as the same Valerie had picked her up in.
Was Valerie just worried for her safety? Was that why she was following them? "Jason," she said, "Just who did you think was following..."
Rebecca trailed off as the surface of the white vehicle suddenly rippled. The car seemed to squash out on the road, flatter and longer. The tyres disappeared, sucked up somewhere into that rippling metal underside. It traveled on, supported now by anti-gravs. The white metal re-solidified and where the compact had been was now a vehicle that resembled the most modern sports cars. Something had changed in the engine too. It roared as the car surged forward.
"Where the hell did that come from?!" said Nick. He cursed and gripped onto the steering wheel, white-knuckled, as his vehicle again nearly got away from him.
"Bloody Peacekeeper!" Jason swung around in his seat. He reached a gloved hand out towards the rear window, his focus on the rapidly gaining sports car.
Rebecca swung around too. She thought she saw the slightest wobble affect the tailing vehicle, when Jason suddenly let out a yell.
"It's okay!" said Nick. "My steering's responding - she's not trying to control my car anymore."
Jason had drawn himself into a tight ball. "That's because she's taken control of my nanites," he gasped.
Nick looked at him wide eyed. "So stop messing with her!"
"You'd rather... gods damn it..." Jason hissed through gritted teeth. "She can't control your car and my... let her mess with the bloody nanites..."
The seed of doubt had already been planted by Nick's presence. He wouldn't be in on this if there wasn't something to it. And Valerie's car was beyond any technology Rebecca had yet seen. NIAsteel bodies were becoming common; the nanites in the steel were there to repair minor body damage. Some of the newest models were able to seamlessly convert from an open top to sedan. But they didn't operate like what she'd just seen. They couldn't change into a completely different machine.
Jason was doubled up in the front seat and Rebecca was certain he wasn't faking it. He'd been given a full complement of medical nanites only this morning. Valerie was controlling them. She was a Controller and she had some sort of insane machine called a Peacekeeper.
"Oh gods..." she said, putting her head in her hands.
Jason managed to draw himself up a bit straighter and he thrust one hand into the back seat almost into Rebecca's lap.
Rebecca recoiled but he was only holding out one of the gloves. "What am I supposed to do with this?!"
"Use it!" Jason hissed.
"Isn't there a training manual or..."
"Hey!" Nick cut in. "Rebecca's got nanites too. Don't you go putting her in danger because..."
"She's got a bracelet she'll be fine!" Jason spat back. He doubled up and swore. "You need to... hijack her..."
"Alright, Jason, hang on," Steph tossed her laptop to the side. She reached out and took the glove from him. "I can tell her how to use it."
"Wait, I can't..."
Steph ignored her protests, took her by the hand and quickly fitted the glove. "Look, Rebecca. I know this is weird and scary. But whatever you're feeling right now you've got to put it aside and concentrate. We can't get away unless someone does something about that Peacekeeper." She glanced out the rear window. "And you're going to have to work this out fast."
Rebecca's heart was thudding in her chest. "There's got to be some other way!"
"She's right, Bec. I can't out-drive her forever; she's too fast. I don't even know what car she's driving, but she's too fast!" Nick's voice was wavering.
"Just concentrate on her car," said Steph. "You don't even have to completely control it just make it crash or something. Look at it, think about its systems, and once you see them use them."
"But how do you know I'm a Controller? There's no reason I should be! Even if I was how would I know how to do this, I..."
An impact. The car swerved, Nick swore, but brought it back under control. "Bec!"
Rebecca's breath caught in her throat. This woman would kill them! There was no time for doubt or debate. She swung around and leaned over the back of the seat so her hand almost touched the rear window. The white vehicle surged closer, intending to hit them again. So close now that Rebecca was almost deafened by the engine's roar. She could only imagine what power lay beneath the hood.
And then she didn't need to imagine - because she saw it. Pistons pounded in the engine, the drivetrain spun, and the computer systems weaved their way through everything, more complex than Rebecca had seen in any schematic. Even its shell was littered with so much energy and information, even with Rebecca's aptitude for understanding machines, it was too much to take in in brief seconds. But she didn't need to take it all in. She just had to get it off the road.
The steering systems were easy to find and Rebecca focused on those. She imagined the car turning. But then she felt something else in there. Not a machine, a presence. Like someone was watching her.
Rebecca gasped and drew back. The image of the Peacekeeper's systems vanished from her mind. The car behind them swerved hard, flew off the road and ploughed into the tunnel wall with a crunch of metal.
"Oh wow..." Steph was there beside her, looking out the back window with her mouth open. "You sure you haven't done this before?"
Rebecca stared breathless out the rear window as the smoking wreckage of the vehicle disappeared around a curve in the tunnel. "Positive."
"See, Bec! I knew you could do it!" Nick grinned.
Jason straightened up in his seat. "You got her," he said, a little weakly.
Nick glanced across at him. "You alright, mate?"
Jason waved him off. "I'll survive. Seems she doesn't want to kill me. Not quickly anyway."
Rebecca turned around slowly. She could feel her stomach rise to her throat. "I just... but I'm not supposed to be a Controller!" There had to be some rule about that; not being a Controller if you didn't know you were one. She would lose her job, all her shares... "What have you dragged me into?!"
Jason let out a sigh. "I've already tried to explain some of this to you and you wouldn't listen. And if you really don't mind I don't feel like doing it again, not right now." He rubbed his eyes. "What more do you want me to say anyway?"
"Bec," Nick said, glancing into the rear view mirror. "I know you're freaked out but I'll explain everything. I promise. Let's just get somewhere safe, okay?"