Author Topic: Chapter 4  (Read 6434 times)

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Offline Daen

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Chapter 4
« on: July 29, 2022, 05:37:45 AM »
That night I came prepared. It had taken some doing, and owing a favor to a somewhat unscrupulous man in a tech store, but I had what I needed.

The parabolic mic was already mine, from my days back in Houston. I'd used it many times before, and felt a wave of nostalgia upon seeing it again. It was ironic that the most horrible thing I'd seen back there had been while I was at home, and not at work.

Loading up my car, I drove carefully northeast towards the area in question. Gwen had wanted me to stay away, but at this point I was straight-up ignoring her. I could have rattled off a list of reasons why, but it all boiled down to just doing the right thing. You don't postpone action when real harm is being done. If you do, you're just as bad as the people doing the harm.

This time I parked half a mile away, and walked eastward for ten minutes or so. The machine plant I'd seen last night was still abandoned, and I'd learned that it would probably be that way for months more. It was perfect for surveillance and possible contact. The trouble was, the place was surrounded by a wire fence. I could cut through it or dig under it, but any damage would be noticeable and I had to be a ghost here.

Wincing at the brute-force of the method, I placed my bolt-cutters against the gate and clipped the lock open. I'd have to get rid of both the cutters and broken lock, but at least it was less obvious than leaving a hole in the fence. I replaced the lock with one of my own, of the exact same design. Hopefully no one would notice it had been replaced.

Then I was inside. After disposing of my other materials I made my way into the plant. It smelled of moss and grass, showing just how long it had been empty. There were signs of animal habitation too, suggesting that the fence had been breached in at least one place. Not trusting the elevators, industrial or otherwise, I found some stairs and climbed my way up to the fourth floor.

Perfect. This was ideal. I was high up enough to get a line of sight on Blake's room, but far enough away from the fence for easy notice. Smiling, I opened up my laptop and set up the laser gear.

This was why I owed my tech guy a favor. Ordinarily getting a laser connected to a laptop with a translation program for Morse code would have taken a few days, or skills I just didn't have. Sorkin had whipped all of this up in an hour or so, in exchange for a job recommendation. He had a troubled employment history and more than one criminal conviction, but Sorkin claimed he wanted to go legit and get a normal job. I hoped, rather than expected, he was genuine about that.

Pulling out my binoculars, I peered through the windows, both here and over there. It was easy enough to set up the parabolic mic, too, which could pick up sounds even off of bulletproof glass. This way I could hear what was going on in there as well.

Sure enough Blake was at his computer. He looked alone, but I counted the number of moving shadows in other rooms before I could relax a little. Aiming the laser carefully at the wall above his computer monitor, I typed a message into the laptop. Here to help.

Blake twitched in surprise, his eyes on the red light blinking on his wall. The message was repeating, and he looked out the window from his chair. He smiled slowly, and waved. His mouth moved, but my mic didn't pick anything up.

That made no sense. He'd spoken clearly at the interview. Unless... he was being listened to?

Hastily, I reached for my laptop again. Are they listening?

As soon as the message completed, he nodded. Apparently he understood Morse code perfectly. Pretty sharp for a twelve-year-old. He returned to his computer, and typed out a bit more on his document. I had to zoom in the binoculars again in order to read it. It was just one word: thanks.

He'd been asking for help for months, maybe even the full year, with no indication if anyone was listening or even cared. He'd reached out to a total stranger the other day, knowing that it might mean getting him in trouble. I felt a sense of kinship with the poor guy, having been all alone in this, whatever this was. Anytime, I typed out, and he smiled out the window.

I'm Ahab, I introduced myself, marveling at how quickly he could pick up what my laser was broadcasting on his wall. How can I help you, Blake?

Blake's smile died, and he turned back to his computer. "My name's not Blake. It's Kieran Morris," he typed out.

I stared at his computer monitor in shock. This wasn't just child abuse- it was kidnapping, too? What else had the Howlands lied about? If that was even their real name. The other day in that bathroom. You touched me, didn't you?

He nodded. "I don't kill people. That's just something they make me say cuz they don't want me touching anyone."

I'd suspected as much, but seeing him confirm it did bring a bit of relief. Ok, I'll report your story to everyone. They'll have to let you go then.

"Blake?" A voice echoed through my mic, and I recognized it was Sandra. Through the binoculars, I could see her shadow under the door. The kid's back stiffened, and he rapidly typed "my mom's name was Ella" before selecting the whole block of text and deleting it. "Just a minute," he called out, and I could hear the tremble in his voice.

The door opened, letting his blond-haired captor into the room. She looked around the room, and peered out the window into the darkness for a moment. "It's late, sweetie. You should be in bed."

"I was just finishing up." He saved his document and closed it, before turning off the computer.

"All right, I'll tuck you in." She helped him into the bed, just out of sight from my position, and leaned down. Flashbacks of what I'd seen in Houston raced through my head, and I gritted my teeth. At least she wasn't physically abusing him. Yet. I had to get the real story out, for his sake.

Then she stood up right away, now upset about something. She walked over to the window and looked out again, this time clearly searching. I cursed under my breath and gathered up my stuff. I'd forgotten about her empathic abilities! She must have sensed something off in Kieran's emotions, and she was looking for me now!

I was well out of her stated range, but that meant literally nothing. They'd lied about their 'son' Blake. Making sure I wasn't leaving any trace, I fled the upstairs of the plant, running down the stairs as fast as I could do it safely.

Whatever Vought or EPPD patrols had gone through this area weren't in sight right now, thankfully. By the time I made it to the ground floor, I was already pulling out the padlock key. Rushing to open the gate, I closed it again behind me and relocked it. Glancing around, I hurled the key into the darkness away from me. There, I was covered. I'd been wearing gloves the whole time, and hadn't left any fingerprints. Trying to look casual, I stripped the gloves and wandered down the hill in the direction of my car.

In the nick of time it turned out. "You, stop!" A voice called out from behind me, and a flashlight focused on my back. I did as told, turning around and covering my eyes against the glare.

I couldn't see much past the light, but the voice was authoritative, and approaching. It was Vought security, I could finally tell from his uniform. "What are you doing out here?"

"Birdwatching," I said casually, lifting my binoculars as evidence.

"Really," he responded dryly, roughly taking my backpack. He was armed, so I didn't want to raise too much of a stink about it. At least he didn't have his gun in hand. "In the middle of the night?"

I shrugged. "That's when the owls are out. I thought I saw a Great Horned owl a few minutes ago, but it was just a normal Barn." Maybe I should put up a little resistance. "Um, who exactly are you, anyway?"

"None of your damn business." He rifled through my pack. "Do birdwatchers always carry parabolic mics and laser pointers with them?"

"We do if we want to record owl calls, and figure out how far away they are exactly," I said truthfully. Sure I hadn't actually used either for those purposes, but the point still stood. "Look, I don't want to cause trouble, but you're obviously not police. This is public property, and I have a right to be here. What you're doing is basically illegal search and seizure."

I didn't even see the blow coming. One second I was standing there, and the next I was on my knees, bleeding into the grass. "Shut up," he said harshly, and spat on the grass next to me.

I spread my hands placatingly, still seeing stars from where he hit me. The bruise on my face would no doubt be a beautiful tapestry of blues and greens by morning.

He pulled out my laptop and opened it. Growling, he grabbed my hand and pressed my right thumb against the authenticator to unlock it. I hid a smile underneath the bruise and pain. I'd deleted the translation program just in case, and it was a good thing I'd done so. All he'd find in there would be pictures and videos of birds in flight and nesting. Nothing but what I wanted him to see.

Unless he didn't care about evidence, and was just delaying until that blonde supe could get over here and interrogate me. I had to get out of here right away.

Running clearly wasn't an option, but I did have an alternative. I spat blood on the ground and stood up slowly. I didn't have to work hard to inject anger into my tone. "Listen, you fascist prick. The world doesn't trust Vought anymore- we know what you really are now. What you've done is just more evidence."

I gestured at the computer. "Speaking of evidence, everything that just happened here has been recorded on my laptop. The moment you opened it, the webcam got a good shot of your face. And if you think you can save yourself by destroying it, think again. All the data is stored on a remote server. You could kill me, but I've got people who know how to access my files. How long do you think it would take for the real cops to come knocking at your door?"

He put his hand on his gun. "Birdwatcher, my ass."

"I record things for a living. Whether they're people or birds. Now you can either let me go right now, or you can watch as your life evaporates. Because if you don't, I will rain legal hell down on you and your employers. They'll have to pay millions to shut me or my people up! You think Vought treats its enemies badly? How do you think they'll treat an embarrassing, expensive failure in their own ranks?"

I was bluffing, right down to my core, but hopefully that didn't show. And my outrage was genuine- he'd struck me, for no reason! He could have detained me without doing that, and it was that very crime which might set me free now!

For a long moment we just stared at each other in the darkness. The moon was rising off to our left, highlighting our features, our equipment... and the blood still dripping from my mouth. Finally, he shook his head. "Get the hell out of here." He dumped my stuff into my backpack with unnecessary roughness, and stomped off down the hill. Feeling a little faint with relief, I had to work hard to stay standing.

Damn, my jaw hurt! I'd been shot at before, and someone had even tried to stab me once, but I'd never been punched. And he knew what he was doing. Usually, punches to the face were more likely to break fingers than facial bones. Wincing, I limped down the other side of the hill towards my car.

No, I couldn't go there. I might have been bluffing about recording all this, but maybe Vought had caught all this on camera! I couldn't go back to my car- it could be traced to my real identity. My blood was still on the ground, but it wouldn't do them any good. I'd never been in the system. Not even my fingerprints were on record.

In the end I took three buses back home, with stopoffs and random walks each time. It was a good thing I'd brought cash with me. Hopefully anyone tracing my steps would be convinced I was just out birdwatching and then going home. Hopefully. At least I had names to run down now. Kieran Morris, and his mother Ella.

-.-

"What in God's name happened to you?"

The voice was worried and frustrated. It was Sally, my former neighbor and now pseudo-roommate. She'd married my current roommate last year and moved in with us. It wasn't exactly a comfortable situation for all three of us, but with housing prices the way they were nationwide, we didn't exactly have many options.

I'd just come downstairs to prepare breakfast when she'd spotted me like this.

"I was mugged," I said groggily, and she put her hands to her mouth. "Don't worry, it's not as bad as it looks."

"Good, because it looks horrible! Have you gone to the police?"

I shook my head and immediately regretted it. "I was out birdwatching, and I didn't even get a good look at the guy. He just decked me, took my wallet, and left. It had my keys on it too."

"You poor thing," she said sympathetically, and moved in close to examine it. "Sheesh. He really did a number on you."

"Yeah, but I wasn't dizzy or nauseous on the way back, so I don't think I have a concussion. I just got my bell rung."

"And then some," she agreed. "Have you ordered replacements for what was in your wallet?"

"Most of it, and I do have my spare car keys. I don't want to drive without a license though. Could you do me a favor and go get my car? It's parked about six miles away- I can give you the address."

"Of course; not a problem. Then when I get back, I can make you look a little more presentable. That bruise would show through normal cover-up, but the stuff I use has a little more kick to it."

I'd hoped as much. Sally worked as a make-up artist in a film studio. She'd even had some minor celebrities in her chair, simulating injuries or historical figures or alien creatures. "Sure, but that can wait until tomorrow. I'm not going to work today. I've already called in."

"Completely. You need to rest, and take it easy. You were wiped out even before this happened. Even Tyler saw that." She peered at my bruise again, clucking her tongue. "What's the world coming to, anyway?"

I'd regretted lying to her and using her to recover my car safely, but I couldn't pity her in this. People were being hurt all over the planet, in ways most of us had never experienced and would probably never understand. Only people with massive privilege could react like it was a surprise, and only people who were massively naïve could lie to themselves that easily.

After she left, I devoted my day to finding Ella Morris. Blake, or Kieran as he should really be known, had referred to her in the past tense, which meant she was probably dead. Still, he was a sharp kid. He probably knew there was a story there, and I'd promised to reveal his story and get him released. At least he knew he wasn't alone now.

Guessing at her age based on Kieran's apparent age, I picked up five or so, in Texas alone. I had to narrow the search somehow.

People generally got their accent from early in life. The whole supe family was southern based on that alone, but Kieran wasn't really one of them. I went through recordings from the interview again and again, trying to nail down his accent. Best I could guess, he was from Louisiana or Mississippi. That was much better- there were only three women by the name Ella Morris there, and two were too young to be mother to a pre-teen.

I pulled up a picture of the third and did a double-take. I knew that face. That was Tia Hawkins: the nanny the Howlands had hired, who had died instantly. Her picture had been in Howland files for over a year now.

This was a special kind of sick. Not only had they kidnapped Kieran, but they were forcing him to claim he killed a woman. The woman who was his biological mother, no less! All as another evil way of maintaining control, and keeping him from touching anyone.

But why? Why bother keeping a kid as a prisoner anyway? And what did his touch do, if it didn't kill people? I'd experienced weird temporal effects for a few hours, but nothing since then. That wasn't much use in a fight. I might have been able to see Rick move at super speed as if he was running normally, but I hadn't been able to move that fast myself.

Questions piling on questions.

First things first. I still had some contacts with the FBI office in Houston, so I called my friend there and asked for a favor. A full dossier on Ella Morris and her son Kieran. At least the FBI wasn't in Vought's pocket yet. The revelation of Compound V had kept both the intelligence community and the military firmly apart from anything supe-related.

Born in Tampa, thirty-two years ago, the child of a construction worker and a waitress. Schooled there in Florida. No sign of any college education, but she did get a job in a tech firm. Probably as an assistant- the tech industry was still heavily sexist.

This was interesting. Apparently she had a child, born twelve years ago, and given up for adoption. On the form she claimed she couldn't care for him like he needed. She probably didn't make enough money at the time, or maybe she had mental health issues. That must have been a heartbreaking experience for her.

Her life had gotten better after that. Two promotions and multiple raises at work. Apparently she'd had a gift for marketing software to various retailers. Then two years ago, she'd hired someone to find her son. It was pretty common, I'd learned, for parents to do that. Moms more than dads, usually.

That was where her record ended. As for Kieran, he'd never been adopted. He'd grown up first in an orphanage, and then bounced between group homes. That had probably been why Stillwell and the scientists had chosen him for Compound V injections. He had no one to come looking for him, or so they'd assumed.

There were multiple incident reports of violence in the file. Apparently Kieran had been bullied, or perhaps had been a bully. Reports from group homes rarely told the full story. Eventually he'd been transferred to a psychiatric facility called Sage Grove. That was all my friend had come up with.

I pulled up public info on Sage Grove. Whoa. A full-scale riot had happened there, just two months ago! Apparently the patients had gained control of the facility for several hours, killing multiple orderlies. At least Kieran hadn't been there for that.

Weirdly, there was no mention of police intervention in the riot.

"Whatcha lookin' at?" Tyler said from behind me, and I jumped like I'd been bitten by something.

Tyler laughed as I tried to regain my composure, but his smile faded when he got a look at my face. "Jeez. Sally told me what happened, but ouch. Are you ok?"

"I will be," I assured him. "Why were you sneaking around like that, anyway?"

"I wasn't. You were just so caught up in... whatever that is, that you didn't notice me."

It was a fair assessment. "I'm just trying to help, well, a friend. I don't know him that well, but he could use a hand right now."

Tyler nodded easily. He'd always been a mellow guy, which was perfect because Sally was so intense. They balanced each other nicely. "Was he there for that?" He gestured at the images from the riots.

"No, he's just a kid. But he was there years ago, and I need to find out why." I leaned back and stretched. FBI resources or not, I couldn't ask my friend for help on this again. Or not that friend, anyway. "I'm taking a few days off, just to relax. Wanna go on a road trip with me? If Sally's ok with it, I mean."

"Sounds like fun. Where to?" Of course he was up for a trip. Tyler's skills were in data recovery, from damaged phones and the like, but he hated the nine-to-five life. Which was why he was always an independent contractor despite the lower pay and lack of benefits. It was a good thing Sally had a well-paying job.

"I'm not actually sure yet," I said, peering back at the pictures from the Sage Grove riot.
« Last Edit: July 29, 2022, 05:39:59 AM by Daen »