Author Topic: Chapter 18  (Read 1384 times)

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Offline Daen

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Chapter 18
« on: June 10, 2022, 02:58:07 AM »
Chapter 18

During the trip back to Manhattan, Benny regaled them with more tales of his friends and family inside the Community. Apparently Dr. Poe and his wife had been official members, if only remotely. He'd probably wanted to keep his distance to keep his employers from finding out about the Spyglass.

"Do you have any idea what Janice and the others will decide to do?" Margo cut off his most recent story, just as it was getting started. "Sorry to interrupt, but if they're planning on taking action against AFI, we need to know about it."

Benny shook his head. "No, we'll stay hidden for as long as we can. As long as Goswin doesn't know about us, hopefully. All those guards Dylan hired are for protection only. They won't be ordered to attack anyone—we all agreed on that."

There was that idealistic-democracy thing again. It might work now, for a group as small as this Community, but it wouldn't last long. Everyone had an opinion, and if they all had an equal say and the ability to argue as they pleased, nothing could get done over the long haul. The only reason they'd lasted this long was because they were united in fear. If the Spyglass was discovered, they could all be facing jail time.

Wait, that wasn't entirely true. Benny had said the Community had existed before the Spyglass, and repeated it the other day. What had united them back then? Frustration, he'd said, at being screwed over again and again by the nature of business.

Near the end of the drive, Margo's mind wandered back to her conversation with Beb last night. Her first instinct had been to turn these thieves in to the authorities for insider trading, but Beb had gotten her thinking about how viable the Community might be. What could it hurt to just wait and see if they could stand the test of time?

Benny dropped them off in the parking lot outside the pumping station about half an hour later. Margo's car was still there. He gave Beb his phone number before heading off, asking her to keep in touch. Disturbingly, she actually looked amenable to that. Margo would have to talk with her in private, and discourage any contact. They already had one felon in their little group—they didn't need a few hundred more.

Margo reached for her car door, but Beb spoke up first, looking over at Benny's retreating car. "I've got some good news, but I didn't want to say it where he could hear me, or back in the Community where we might have been recorded. I think I can unlock Jia's message before the deadline tomorrow. With Eddie's help, anyway."

Margo stared at her. "How? I thought you said people have been trying for years, and failing. What was it; like a one-in-a-million chance at this point?"

"It was, but that was before I downloaded what the Community people have been working on. They've been trying to crack this code just as long as anyone else, and they had one of the original designers helping them!"

"And how exactly did you download that?" Tin asked mildly. "You were under guard or being recorded the whole time you were in Masontown."

"You're the smart ones," Beb challenged them, shrugging. "You tell me."

Margo thought back over recent events. Tin was right: Beb hadn't been alone or unobserved at any point during their 'visit' to the Community. She also didn't have any of her computer equipment... except for the tiny computer she always carried. Beb's phone had been outfitted with a wireless sniffer, which they'd used back in the AFI building. The Community had probably been jamming wireless signals, so it would have been useless. Then Margo remembered. "When they plugged your phone into the exciter! That was all it took?"

"Very good," Beb complimented. "Yup, it's programmed to download information from any source it's linked to. I just had to tell it what to look for, which I did while 'unlocking' it for them."

"You sneaky little genius!" Tin put in, sounding impressed even for his usual flat tone. "I guess infiltration comes in all shapes and sizes, huh? I snuck in physically, Margo did it diplomatically, and you followed up digitally."

"Yeah, but that was just a warm-up act," Margo said, her good cheer fading somewhat. Benny's car had sped up onto the highway and out of sight by now. "The main event is going to be finding out what Goswin and AFI are up to, and that'll be a lot harder."

Margo drove them back to the hotel, across the bay bridge again. Strangely, Tin insisted that she park in the exact same place as before, near the far end of the lot. It was just after noon by then, with the sun beating down on them from above as they got out of the car. Tin looked around with his hand shielding his eyes.

There was something odd about his stance as he started walking, but Margo didn't have to wait long to find out what it was. "Don't react to what I'm saying," Tin said softly, moving between her and Beb. "We're being watched."

Margo tried to keep her stride even and her shoulders relaxed. They were walking at a slow pace, and it made sense now. "How do you know that?"

"I set up a reflective paper in my room's window. It was supposed to be shining down at us, but I don't see it anymore. Someone's been in my room."

"It could have just been the cleaning staff," Beb suggested, but her tone wasn't very hopeful.

"No, I put a Do Not Disturb sign on my door. And I saw a glint when I looked up at my window. I've seen it before, overseas. It's from a sniper lens."

At first, Margo had been partially convinced that he might be joking with them. Now she felt a genuine stirring of fear. "They're just going to gun us down here in broad daylight?"

Tin shook his head. "No, the guy who attacked you at Beb's house wasn't trying to kill you. My guess is they want information, and to get it quietly. They'll grab us inside the hotel, once we're out of the public eye, and interrogate us somewhere they can control." He tilted his head slightly to the left. "Beb, I saw a bunch of exciter parts in your room. Do you need any of that equipment to decode the message?"

"Uh, I don't think so. With Eddie's help, we should be able to figure it out with just what I have on my phone." She looked stricken. "He should be at work by now, but if they know we were staying in those rooms, they might know about him, too! He could be in trouble!"

"Unless he's the one who called them here," Margo said grimly. It was an unpleasant possibility, but one that had to be considered. "I really don't want to be kidnapped twice in one week."

"I don't think so," Tin objected in a soft tone. "If Eddie was working with Goswin or AFI, we would have been attacked a while ago. Besides, we're not going to give them the chance to grab us. In about five seconds we'll be out of sight of the guy up above. I'll rush to the left, and take you both with me."

Beb still looked nervous, and Margo couldn't grab her hand. "We'll be all right," she said reassuringly, tensing for a sudden sprint.

"Now," Tin said sharply, and darted off to the north end of the building.

Whoever was up there was good, all right. Almost before they ran off with him, there was a series of short popping noises behind them. Bullets from a silenced rifle, smashing into the ground as they moved. The next volley hit a car, shattering its window and peppering its hood with holes. Beb screamed, but didn't slow down. They had to be out of sight by now.

Tin led the way professionally, but Margo could see anger and fear in his eyes as well. He ducked into a side alley, his eyes searching the nearby buildings. "Looks like they don't have any backup positions on this side of the building. Good. This way."

On the other side of the hotel was a parking structure, built both up and down. Tin jumped over the short divider and quickly took stock of all the nearby vehicles. Margo followed, holding Beb by the hand. Her mind was racing. AFI was trying to kill them now? How far would they go? Somehow they'd found out about the hotel rooms, even though Tin, Margo and Beb had all used fake names to book them. The Community had used local footage. Did AFI have similar capabilities?

First things first: they were probably watching her car, so Margo needed to find a new set of wheels. She'd never stolen a car before, but it couldn't be that hard, could it? Even as she looked for possible candidates, she heard the shattering of glass off to the left. "Over here," Tin's voice filtered out from that direction.

Exchanging a glance with Beb, Margo went to investigate. Tin had opened the door by now, and was brushing glass off the passenger seat. He checked the floor covers and sunshades, apparently for the keys, but came up empty. Then he slid onto the passenger seat and got to work on the steering column. Margo supposed it made sense that he knew how to hotwire a car. He'd had plenty of experience. She briefly wondered why he wasn't just returning to the stolen car he'd brought here in the first place, but then realized it had probably been discovered by now.

"How did you know breaking the window wouldn't set off an alarm?" Beb asked quietly from the passenger side.

"Certain models have faulty alarms," he grunted with effort, yanking the panel away from the column. "The manufacturers lie about it so they can skimp on car safety costs. Most of those models also don't have a steering lock in place, making them easier to steal. We got lucky there was one so close to the entrance."

Despite the circumstances, Margo was fascinated to see him at work. With just his bare hands, he'd pried the panel loose, and then used its edge to strip the wires needed to start the car. He twisted the wires together, and the engine sputtered to life. "Got it."

He wiped some sweat off his brow, and then looked back at them. His eyes lingered on Margo's short hair for a moment, and then moved on. "Beb, you should be the one driving. Take out your hairpin and let your hair down. I know you wear contacts, but do you have an emergency set of glasses on you? Anything you can do to change your appearance will help."

Beb patted at her pockets. "Uh, yeah. Here they are."

"Put this on, too," he tossed a jacket out from the back seat of the car, and Beb caught it.

A few seconds later they were pulling out of the parking lot. Margo and Tin were in the back seat, staying low and trying to stay out of sight. Beb had rolled down the passenger window to hide the broken edges. "Where to?"

"Back to I-95 for now," Tin answered. "I'll be looking for signs of pursuit on the way."


Margo turned the possibilities over and over in her head, as they sped down the highway. "How the hell did they know we'd even been in those rooms? None of us used our real names when we signed in! Did they have access to the hotel camera feeds? Or could AFI be using a sort of Spyglass of their own?"

Beb shook her head from up front. "Not without a massive power drain. Either they have their own source of power like the Community does, or they have help from inside the Intelligence services."

"I really don't like the sound of that," Margo said sourly. "If the CIA or FBI are after us, then we can't go home! We can't use any of our money other than cash. We can't catch a train or a plane anywhere. Maybe the Community was right to be afraid of Goswin. If he's got government agents on his payroll, he's basically unstoppable!"

Margo felt short of breath, and it had nothing to do with their recent sprint, or the car theft. Her whole life was at an end! Forget about her career, she would be lucky if she just survived the next few hours!

"I'm not so sure it's as bad as that," Tin said, his voice contemplative. "I've been watching since we left, and I don't think we're being followed. We've gotten near four cop cars in the past ten minutes, and none of them paid us any special attention. APBs leave subtle clues in police behavior, and I've gotten pretty good at spotting them. No one's looking for us other than that trigger-happy idiot back there."

"Then how did they find us at all? The Community only found out because they had access to my car. If Goswin's not using government surveillance or government power for an exciter, how did he find out where we were staying?"

Tin shook his head. "I can't answer that. It shouldn't have been possible."

"Well if we're not being followed, then I'm taking a detour," Beb said, activating a turn signal. "Eddie might be in trouble, just because he was with me in that hotel room. I need to check on him."

Margo looked over in Tin's direction. "Are you sure he's not the one who sold us out? We could be putting ourselves right in Goswin's crosshairs again."

Tin grimaced. "I can't be 100 percent sure. They could have just had sloppy execution of the plan. It wouldn't have been for the first time."

"I am sure, and I'm taking us there either way."

Margo raised an eyebrow over at Tin. "I guess that settles that. Beb has spoken."

A short time later, they were back at the Jansen Paper plant where Eddie 'worked'. Their earplugs were still in Margo's car, but fortunately there were replacement ones at the front desk. The guard recognized them from the other day and waved them through. Somehow, Margo doubted he was aware of the Community's involvement with this company, but they wouldn't have a problem with her coming back here. From what Benny had said, it would be another few weeks before they could fire off another Spyglass burst and steal more information from the stock market.

Beb was obviously worried, but her shoulders sagged with relief when she caught sight of Eddie down below. Margo saw his eyebrows lift with surprise just as Beb grabbed him in a bear hug. She was shorter than him, but she also had a particularly strong grip.

When she finally let him go, there was the usual noise barrier. The air compressor was hard at work, drowning out almost all conversation. Eddie beckoned them into his soundproofed room again, and Margo followed reluctantly. Her exciter had also been inside her car, and was now unavailable. She couldn't use it to communicate with the projected words like they'd done before.

The studio had been redecorated, this time to a more upscale appearance, but at least it was empty. Eddie closed the door, and then everyone removed their earplugs. "I wasn't expecting to see you here again," he said, his eyes moving from one to another of them. "Is everything ok?"

"Are you ok?" Beb asked him in return. "Have you had any trouble since leaving the hotel? Anyone following you?"

Looking suspicious, Eddie shook his head. "Everything's been normal. Or normal for me anyway. What's going on, Beb?"

"There was some trouble at the hotel this morning," Margo cut in, concerned that Beb might tell him more than he needed to know. "We can't really go into it, but the point is, we need your help with the exciters. Beb got ahold of some info that could help us decipher the message inside."

Eddie rolled his eyes. "Yeah, I've heard that one before. Come on, we've got what, a day before the announcement goes out and the message plays for everyone automatically? This was just a hurdle that the programmers at Aldwin-Farrow set up for people to try and break through, and we failed. Give it up already."

Beb pulled out her phone and unlocked it. She swiped through some information, and then handed it to him. Still obviously skeptical, he looked at it. As he read downwards, his eyes widened slightly and his mouth opened. "Whoa."

"Yeah," Beb confirmed for him. "Mind-blowing, right?"

"Where did you even get that? Did someone from Aldwin-Farrow help you?"

"It's kind of a long story," Beb hedged. "The point is, I have it. Will you help me? Between the two of us, I'm sure we can figure it out."

He was quiet for a long moment, but Margo already knew where he was leaning. She'd seen that excitement in his eyes before, whenever she saw Beb finalizing one of her own projects. She was giddy with her achievement, every time. Maybe she and Eddie weren't such a mismatch after all.

"Yeah, all right," he said finally. "Screw it. It's now or never, right? I'll close up shop for the day." He looked around at the soundproofed room. "I don't want to work on it here, but we can go back to the hotel and figure it out there."

Margo shook her head. "The hotel's no longer an option. Do you live nearby?" Wait, that wouldn't work. He didn't know they were driving a stolen car. But then again, given his own profession, he might not care.

"I know a place," Tin put in quietly. "It's safe and only about half an hour away. Do you need any special equipment?" He asked in Beb's direction.

"Just a standard-issue exciter," she responded. "Mine is... unavailable right now." Translation: also in Margo's car, under guard by whoever had shot at them earlier.

"I've got a spare," Eddie said quickly. "Just give me a few minutes and I'll meet you outside."


In retrospect, Margo realized she should have known what kind of place Tin had meant.

It was a military base just southwest of Jersey City. The place looked decommissioned, but the fence had been maintained. There were watchtowers dotting the corners and portions of the fencing, and the barrier itself was topped with razor-wire. Margo gave Tin a concerned look as they drove up in convoy with Eddie behind them, but he just nodded confidently. "Trust me, we're good here."

She did trust him. It was odd, given that what little she knew of him suggested him to be violent, criminal, and pathologically secretive. But he hadn't killed anyone as far as she knew: even the one man he was certain did deserve it.

Tin guided their stolen car up to the gate, and leaned out the driver's window to look up at the camera. He just waited there for a moment, and then the gate was buzzed open from the inside. Nodding in thanks, Tin drove through it. Beb was back in Eddie's car, probably getting a head start on the decryption.

So the base wasn't abandoned after all. There were probably one or two airmen here—from the size of the facility, it looked like it had been Air Force before being shut down. It would be their job to maintain security. Not exactly a job for a soldier, but it sure beat being a discharged veteran. Margo's father had been honorably discharged, and faced huge problems upon returning to his home country. If not for her grandpa keeping things going, he might have ended up on the street for lack of work.

Tin drove them straight up to what looked like an administrative building, and the door was already opening. A tall, scarecrow-thin man appeared in the doorway, wearing a crisp blue and white uniform. His face split into a huge grin as Tin stepped out of the car. The tall and spindly reached down and grasped the short and stocky in a firm embrace. "Tin. Good to see you again."

"You too, Pollack," Tin replied, with a rare smile of his own. "I wondered if you were still stationed here."

"I'm the only one left," Pollack responded, letting go of him. "The others all got re-assed last month." He paused for a moment. "Chalmers called me last week. He said you'd gotten mixed up in something bad, down in Philly. What kind of trouble did you bring to my door this time?"

Tin glanced back at Margo. "Nothing you can't handle. Listen, can we stay here for a few hours? I need to check official law enforcement channels."

"Not a problem. Mi casa and all that."

Margo cleared her throat. By now, Eddie and Beb had stepped out as well, and were standing behind her.

"Right." Tin introduced them one after another, and Margo was surprised that he used their real names. He must trust this individual: they'd obviously served together at some point. Belatedly, Margo realized the uniform was Army, not Air Force. This must have been a training facility once. That would explain its sheer size. "Everyone, this is Major Erwin Pollack. There isn't a better man to have at your back, both overseas and here."

Pollack smiled slightly at the praise, and ushered them inside. "I can't let you into the control room, but you should be ok in the barracks just outside and to the left. It's not very comfortable I'm afraid, but it's part of my job to maintain it. The mess is just down the way if you're hungry. Tin, you know my access codes; feel free to use them to look up whatever you want. If you need anything else, just knock on the control room door."

"Thank you, Major," Margo said earnestly. "We've had a rough day, and it's very gratifying to have a place we can feel safe for a change."

"Anytime, ma'am," he bowed slightly and turned away.

Beb and Eddie got to work right away, co-opting one of the bunks in the barracks as they opened up his exciter. Tin found a computer console on the far side. Margo politely looked away as he typed in whichever security codes Pollack had shared with him and pulled up information.

"Looks like I was right," he said after a few moments of staring at the screen. "There's a police report about a shooting in the hotel parking lot, and a car reported stolen from the same location, but there's no indication of who did it. There's no APB or stake-and-notify order for the JCPD. No sign of intelligence involvement either. However Goswin found us, it wasn't with any official channels."

"That's a relief," she said, leaning back against the wall and sliding down to a sitting position. "Looks like I'm in no more danger today than I was yesterday. Beb either. You on the other hand, are in all sorts of trouble."

"Oh?" Tin gave her a curious look, sliding down opposite from her.

"I figured you out," she announced triumphantly. "I know who you really are."

"I doubt it," he responded right away. "I've seen you spinning theories in your head for over a week now, every time we met. You might have a close guess, but you don't have any hard evidence."

"Your name really is Tin, isn't it? You never lied about that." Margo said softly, and his casual stance changed. He locked his eyes on hers, suddenly serious and alert.

Eventually, he nodded. Margo's triumph faded away as she saw how seriously he was taking this. She supposed she would feel the same in his shoes, but the situation was so alien to her that she had no frame of reference here. "Beb mentioned you had a contentious relationship with your father. Is he the reason you joined the military?"

"One of the reasons, yes. I thought it might please him, but there's no satisfying that man. I gained a whole new family in the service, and they treated me better than he ever did." He looked over at the control room door. "Did Pollack have a chat with you I wasn't aware of?"

Margo shook her head. "No, it was a combination of things. Your fear of being touched. Your insistence on being alone most of the time, or always having an escape route if you're with others. Mostly though, it was the scars on your back. Multiple surgeries, you said, and not all for bullet wounds or IED explosions. Did it happen before or after you met your new 'family'?"

"It started months before I joined up, but the surgeries themselves were after. I was out of commission for most of a month, and then I was doing therapy for a while afterwards."

"How did they react when they saw you again?"

He smiled, glancing over at the control room door. "It was barely an issue with them. We'd fought side by side before, and did again afterwards. I did have to answer a few stupid questions, and put up with some pranks, but that's just how we did things over there."

"I'm glad you have such good friends. I know I'd be lost without Beb looking out for me. I take it Jia paid for the surgeries?"

He nodded. "This was after she started working for AFI, so she could afford it by then. She was even more understanding than my squad. It makes sense, given what she'd gone through, but I was grateful all the same." He paused, his eyes narrowing. "Does Beb know? Or Eddie for that matter?"

"Eddie I doubt, but Beb might. She's pretty intuitive for an engineer. She's got great people skills. She might have made a good detective if she wasn't so obsessed with her machines."

"Are my ears burning?" Beb said, walking down the long hallway.

The tension from earlier snapped, and Margo slowly got up and stretched. Tin was Tin, and apparently always would be. His obsession with finding Jia's killer, and now taking him down, was still a part of him, but at least now Margo understood it a bit better. "We were only saying good things," she assured Beb.

"Yeah, I'm sure. So we decrypted the message. There's a latent trigger in the programming, but that's time-locked. It could take months to figure out what it does, and we don't have that kind of time."

"Who is the message from? Jia, like we thought?" Tin asked, a little anxiously from what Margo could tell.

Beb nodded. "Eddie wanted to watch it, but I figured you'd both want to be there. We paused it just after we saw her image. Come on, it's time to see what all the fuss is about.

Smiling, Margo reached down and hauled Tin to his feet. He seemed lighter on them than before.
« Last Edit: June 10, 2022, 03:12:52 AM by Daen »