Just as that thought crossed his mind, the overhead lights flickered, then went out. The guard stiffened, then relaxed when he saw other lights from the city through a conference room window. Even with the “Second Reconstruction” finally up and running after four years, the power grid in D.C.—and nationwide—was still spotty at best. The emergency generator automatically kicked in after thirty seconds, unless the blackout ended before then.
A faint pop sounded from somewhere above him. Clicking on the flashlight at his belt buckle, he stepped closer to the window, waiting. Then he frowned, peering harder at the outside lights. The glow seemed too close for a local failure. Looking past the fence, he saw one or two old streetlights on, down the road. If they were still burning…He looked down at the luminous dials on his watch: 03:20. The generator should have kicked in almost a full minute ago.
Spinning on his heel, the guard speed-walked back to the door. Taking the stairs two or three at a time, he rapped out: “03:19—Blackout of unexplained nature; generators unresponsive. Moving to—”
He caught himself. If both the grid and the generator were out, the servers would be, too, which meant no wi-fi, and all hardline links had been removed in the original security set-up, to avoid possible cyberattacks. He grabbed for the backup walkie on his shirtfront. It didn’t have much range, but his company maintained another security post maybe three blocks away, and the blackout didn’t look to have extended that far.
Reaching the first floor, he saw the lights were all down as well. He headed toward the main office, thumbing the Transmit button as he walked. “ProShield ID number 7556-80. Unexplained blackout taking place at my location; generator unresponsive. Please advise.”
The only answer was a harsh buzz of static. That was scary. The radio was practically clear-channel, and there were plenty of other users within range. He should be able to hear faint voices or codes, even if he couldn’t reach or recognize them. What the hell’s going on?
He hit Transmit again, to make the same call, when a new thought struck him. That pop…right before the lights failed…No…It couldn’t have been…But nothing else fit. Which meant…
His hand dropped to the 9mm at his waist. In that same instant, there was a faint shift in the air around him. Out of nowhere, a gloved hand closed tightly around his wrist. He twisted instinctively…and then he was facedown on the carpet, pinned by someone’s arm or knee, his gun hand wrenched up behind him. He struggled, trying to twist free, and drew in a breath to shout.
A sharp coldness pressed at his neck, just above the carotid. “Quiet,” a voice from behind him murmured—a woman’s, by the sound of it. “Cooperate, and you won’t be harmed.”
Keeping his head still, he allowed the rest of his body to go slack. The pressure at his back eased. “Smart,” said the voice. A fierce jerk on his arm, and he was hauled upright, the knife still at his throat. The intruder spoke again, seemingly into the ether: “Ready?”
“Yes,” another voice answered—deep, and male. A shadowy figure moved into the weak beam of the belt-light. He was a full head taller than the guard’s five-ten, dressed in grey-and-white running pants and jacket. A mask of some blue-black, shimmery fabric covered his face, except for his eyes and mouth. When he stepped closer, the guard saw gloves of similar make covering his hands, running up into his sleeves and down over his feet. It was like an all-over wetsuit, or some weird BDSM outfit.
With a few deft motions, the second intruder removed the guard’s sidearm and ejected the clip, then broke the weapon down and tossed the pieces down the hall. Sliding the clip inside his jacket, he spoke two words: “Let’s go.”
All of a sudden, the guard felt the hold on his arm vanish. Before he could even twitch, steel-like fingers clamped at the back of his neck. Speaking carefully, the guard asked: “Where?”
“Downstairs,” the woman replied. “You’ll open the vault, we’ll take what we need, and be on our way.”
“I can’t. The power’s down, and the locks are sealed—“
The grip on his neck tightened. He gasped in pain. “There’s a back-up generator, separate from the one for the building,” the woman said coldly. “Runs all the time, protected from any energy spikes. But you already knew that, so don’t waste our time—and yours.”
“Easy,” the man said, raising a hand. “He’s just a grunt, only told what he needs to know…and I doubt he knows anything beyond the door.” His eyes—blue-green, with an eerie glow of some kind—fixed onto the guard’s. “Like my partner said, we don’t want to harm you. Comply, and we’ll be gone in a few very short minutes. Don’t, and we’ll resort to other measures—ones we prefer not to use unless absolutely necessary.”
The knife pressed deeper into his throat. He swallowed, carefully. “All right…All right.” The man nodded once. The grip at his neck disappeared, along with the knife. Then a sharp prod at his back: get moving.
Unlike the doors opening onto the other three floors, which just required a swipe from his ID card, the one leading to the basement needed both that and a separate keycode. When he approached the panel, however, the keys were dark. The door opened easily when he turned the handle. When the three of them started down the stairs to the corridor beyond, the two intruders each removed a small pin-light from some hidden pocket, and attached them to the front of their jackets, throwing eerie shadows off the walls with every stride.
The corridor beyond was just plain gray-white walls, with tan linoleum flooring. After maybe a minute’s walk, they reached the vault—a single square stainless-steel door, with thumbprint scanner, keypad and ID swipe. He glanced over his shoulder to see both intruders watching impassively. “If the vault’s on its own power, it probably has a wi-fi link, too. Even if my bosses didn’t get a signal from me, they might from the vault’s system, and—”
“We’re aware of that,” the woman replied curtly. Her brown-black eyes bored into him, and she flashed the knife again—eight inches long at least, with a hairsplitter edge that gleamed in the soft light. “So unless you want this to end quick and messy, I suggest you get a move on.”
Trying to ignore his racing heart, the guard placed his left thumb on the scanner, then swiped his card and punched in the code. A faint beep sounded, followed by a set of loud clunks! as the locks withdrew. The door popped open a foot, letting out a rush of pressurized air into the corridor.
Noiselessly, the man stepped past and grasped the edge of the door with one hand. In the poor light, the guard could just make out his fingers and upper arm tense and flex, pushing sharply against the metal. At first, he thought the other man hadn’t correctly guessed the door’s weight, and would soon try to wrench it open further with both hands. Then the thick slab swung away, as easily as if it were cheap plywood. His jaw dropped. What…What the hell…
Before he could speak, the woman stepped in front of him, knife at the ready, blocking most of his view as her partner stepped across the threshold. Peering discreetly over her shoulder, he spotted a single office chair standing against the far wall, facing an old-style solid computer monitor and hard drive. Miniature keypads were set into the walls, marking them as the secure storage boxes interspersed throughout the room.
The man stepped up to the monitor. Even at a distance, the guard could see him reach into another part of his jacket, and pull out a matchbook-sized device, which he placed atop the hard drive. A faint whining note emanated from the machine, fading after a few seconds. His back still to the door, the man retrieved the device, holding it between two fingers as he moved closer to the storage wall and rolled up the sleeve of his jacket, revealing more of the black skinsuit, or whatever it was. Ignoring a warning glance from the woman, the guard angled his head for a better look, and saw the man touch his thumb to the fabric at his left wrist. At once, a holo-screen, about the size of a large notecard, shimmered into existence above the forearm sleeve.
Surprised at the door, he was flabbergasted now. As he watched, the man pressed the device to his sleeve, just below the screen. The image blinked several times, eventually displaying several lines of illegible text. The man grunted, a single note of satisfaction, and looked around at the various boxes. Finally, he said, simply, “It’s here.”
The woman nodded, not taking her eyes off the guard. “Fine.” With a single blurred motion, she twisted the blade around in her hand, gripping the hilt more tightly. With no more warning than that, the pommel lashed out for the guard’s face.
Reflex kicking in, he ducked, and rolled to one side as the blow struck the wall. Blade ready this time, the woman straightened, and charged. He crouched low on the balls of his feet, and sprang forward, catching her by the waist. She let out a startled Oof! as they landed hard on the corridor floor, him straddling her chest. Not wasting a second, he raised a fist and smashed her jaw against the unyielding floor. A spike of pain hammered up his arm, but his shout was drowned by the woman’s scream—and the crackle of breaking teeth and bone. He’d gone through plenty of boxing in the gym and the Army, and he could land blows as well as any pro.
The woman lay still, moaning. Even with the mask, he could see how misaligned the jaw was. Savagely pleased, he lifted his arm for the shock-cuffs at his belt…just as the woman’s knife hand came up.
Lights exploded in front of his eyes. He flew backwards, crumpling against the wall. Everything was spinning crazily—the vault, the walls, the floor. Groaning he looked up to see the woman getting to her feet. When she turned to look at him, he saw her jaw and mouth, what should have been a mangled, soppy mess of blood and teeth…already shifting back into place, as if by its own will. He goggled as the woman brought a hand to the wounds, wiping away a gob of red muck from her lips. Beneath, the gash from his punch was slowly fading, sewing back together—leaving unmarked skin beneath. Then a curtain of black crashed down over his eyes, and he knew nothing else.
At the sound from outside, Greg spun around. He was at the vault door in a blink, one hand reaching inside his jacket. Stepping out, he looked to his left in time to see the guard topple to the ground, dead or unconscious. Slowly, he fought down the gut reaction, and looked Leah’s way. “Was that necessary?” he murmured.
“Seeing as the alternative was killing him, yes.” Leah’s voice was mushy, but understandable—the compound was working fast, as always. Retrieving her knife, she slipped it beneath her own jacket. A flap of the clinger suit immediately peeled free and closed over the blade, sheathing it. “You and the rest of the Council decided we need to go clean for support. This is as clean as I get.”
“And if he dies in the next ten minutes?” he said, still quiet, but with a sharper edge. “This isn’t Pyongyang or Tehran—we can’t leave bodies. Not here.”
Leah glared at him. He met it with a stony one of his own. With an air of granting a great concession, she nodded, and bent to the guard’s side. She put two fingers to his neck, and delicately peeled back an eyelid. “Just out cold. He’ll come to in maybe half an hour.” She straightened, and looked at Greg impatiently. “Now let’s get moving. Somebody’s bound to notice an EMP going off in this city, no matter how small.”
Letting it go, Greg stepped back into the vault. He looked over the walls again, until he spotted the box that had been indicated on the hard drive’s records, set directly above the monitor. Taking the code-cloner out again, he attached it just below the keypad. The little device beeped once, twice, three times. Then the keypad’s screen blinked on, a cascade of numbers flashing across it. After maybe five seconds, the access code froze on the screen: 776532846536. With a loud click, the box unlocked, and slowly slid open.
Stepping around the terminal, Greg peered down into the compartment—easy, given his height. Inside sat a single metal cylinder, set atop a two-pronged metal mount. Roughly the shape of a large beer can, its only distinguishing mark was a small aperture, set just below the seal at the top—about the size and shape of the end of a human finger. With infinite care, Greg reached both hands into the compartment, and lifted the cylinder free.
A red light flashed on in the center of the mount, followed by a low buzzing. “Dammit,” Greg muttered. Gripping the cylinder in one hand, he trotted for the door, where Leah stood, knife at the ready. “Must’ve tripped a weight sensor, or a backup alarm. Either way, we’ll be having guests within five minutes, maybe less.” Leah nodded, as if she’d expected nothing else.
They jogged up the hallway, taking the stairs three at a time. When they stepped through the double front doors, Leah froze, holding up one hand. She sniffed the cold March air once, twice, and cocked her head in several different directions. before nodding all clear. They broke into a dash. As they bounded across the empty parking lot, Greg chuckled, “I’ll never understand that. All the tech and skills we got from the start in the Project, and you still make like some old-school tracker out of one of the Doctor’s old movies.”
“Hey, it worked a lot better than this, plenty of times,” Leah retorted, gesturing to her clinger. They rounded the street corner without slowing, the air rushing around them. Their ride—a battered, twenty-year-old hybrid, lay a few blocks down, maybe a minute away. “Besides, my group was trained with stealth in mind. Relying on tech all the time would’ve been a waste, and probably gotten us killed in less than a second.”
They halted beside the car. With no trace of breathlessness, Greg answered: “Well, after tonight, we have the means to make sure none of us have to face that again.” He held up the canister.
Leah nodded, somber now. “You’re sure there’s no self-destruct? Or something else to wreck the data if it’s removed?”
“If there were, we’d have seen the results.” He lifted the canister up to catch the light from a nearby streetlamp. Pointing to the aperture, he said. “This is the hard part, as of this moment. Getting the treasure was easy—now we have to convince the only person who’s bound to have the key.
“You think that’s gonna happen?” Leah inquired. “Even if he’s still alive, there’s no guarantee he’s still where he landed. Or that our surprise arrival won’t make him react…unpleasantly.”
“Don’t have a choice.” Greg flipped the canister to his other hand, and pressed it against his waist. Two thin membranes looped around the object, securing it. “This gives us some of the proof—but he’s the clincher. Short of the Doctor coming back from the dead, there’s no other way of convincing the world…and making sure we have a future.”
Sighing, Leah opened the passenger door and climbed in. As Greg got behind the wheel on the other side, she touched a slight protrusion at the clinger’s throat. The edge of the section covering her face unsealed. She peeled back the entire mask, letting it fall behind her shoulders where it resealed against the back of the garment. Her reflection stared at her from the windshield: strong, mocha-colored features, and black hair tied into a tight bun hanging partway down her neck. To any average observer, she could have passed for a young, lighter-skinned black woman in her early twenties. Until one saw the wrinkles around her vivid, glowing brown eyes, that is…and what lay behind the eyes themselves.
Glancing to her left, she saw Greg removing his mask, too. He scratched at his dark reddish-blond buzz-cut, as he buckled in with his free hand. He didn’t even glance her way. She sighed. “Look…I’m sorry, about back there. I’m just…sick of all this, and I want it to be over, same as you.”
Greg shifted in his seat, facing her. His pale, youthful face was set in grave lines. “I know,” he murmured. He reached out a hand, laying it gently on hers. They stared at each other for a long moment. “Ready?” he asked.
She squeezed his hand, tight. When she spoke, it was in a whisper: “Since Seattle.”
The corners of his mouth quirked, in what might have been a smile. Turning forward again, he pressed the starter button. Quiet as a breeze, the car pulled away from the curb and disappeared into the ill-lit gloom.