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Reality Intrudes [Worm/Matrix AU]

Discussion in 'Creative Writing' started by Ack, Nov 18, 2017.

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  1. Threadmarks: Index
    Ack

    Ack (Verified Ratbag) (Unverified Great Old One)

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    What if Worm was just a Matrix simulation, and an operative came calling ... ?

    Disclaimers:
    1) This story is a crossover between the Wormverse and the Matrix. I own neither property.
    2) I will follow Worm canon as closely as I can. If I find something that canon does not cover, I will make stuff up. If canon then refutes me, I will revise. Do not bother me with fanon; corrections require citations.
    2a) This story is set about twenty years after the Matrix movies. The Mainframe has gone down, but the Matrix is still up. Many sub-systems are still maintaining individual pod-farms, and most of humanity is still dreaming in their pods.
    3) I welcome criticism of my works, but if you tell me that something is wrong, I also expect an explanation of what is wrong, and a suggestion of how to fix it. Note that I do not promise to follow any given suggestion.

    Part One: Mission Prep (below)
    Part Two: Being Taylor Hebert is Suffering
    Part Three: Gathering Information
    Part Four: Revelations
    Part Five: Sophia Interlude
    Part Six: Wake-Up Call
     
    Last edited: Dec 11, 2017
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  2. Threadmarks: Part One: Mission Prep
    Ack

    Ack (Verified Ratbag) (Unverified Great Old One)

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    Part One: Mission Prep



    I'm half-asleep in my bunk when the call comes over the scratchy PA system. “Morrigan to the Captain's cabin. Morrigan to the Captain's cabin.” Yawning, I stretch a little. Sure, I heard the call, but waking up properly takes time. I'm not a morning person, never have been. Probably comes from all that late-night sneaking around in back alleys. In the Matrix, of course. Humanity hasn't rebuilt enough to have back alleys in the real world yet.

    Getting off the bunk, I rub my eyes and stretch again. Looking down at myself, I wonder if it's worth putting on pants to go see the Old Lady. On balance, I decide that it's probably a good idea. So I climb into a pair of imitation blue-jeans I picked up on my last leave rotation, cover my sleeveless top with a t-shirt, and pull on a coat over that. Tugging on my boots takes another few seconds, then I run a comb through my brush-cut and head out of my cabin.

    The first person I see on my walk to the Captain's cabin is Loki. Smarmy motherfucker thinks he's all that, too. “Hey, Morrigan,” he mouths off. “Figure the Captain finally got sick of your handle and decided to rename you? I figure 'More or less' should about—urk!”

    I hold the straight-arm pose, with a knuckle on either side of his Adam's apple, until he starts to turn an interesting shade of purple. When I pull back my arm, he slides down the wall and collapses to his knees, coughing and choking, but he doesn't try to retaliate. Which is smart of him, and proves that he can learn. Eventually.

    Turning my back, I walk on. All too soon, I end up at Captain Hornblower's cabin. I have no fucking idea where that name comes from. It's not like she's got a trumpet on the wall or something. Just a picture of an old-timey sailing ship. I stick my head in the door and nod to her. “Captain.”

    “Morrigan.” She doesn't look up. “Come on in. Close the door. Take a seat.” Her fingers rattle on the keys of her computer as she speaks, which means she's better at multi-tasking than me. She's also given me a direct order, so I drag out a chair and drop my ass in it. For a bit, I watch as she keeps typing.

    I have no idea if she's filling out forms, writing her biography or describing the look on my face (bored. Bored, bored bored. With a side order of bored.) Then I start checking out the rest of the cabin. Nope, nothing new here. Oh, wait. There's a picture of some guy in a blue uniform with gold buttons and decoration and stuff. He looks bored, too.

    Captain Hornblower stops typing and looks up at me. “Morrigan. Are you familiar with the population conundrum?” Her tone says that she doesn't expect me to be, and that she'll probably have to fill me in on what she's talking about.

    And the bastard of it all, it's true. “Uh, no, Captain. What's that?” I know that we're gonna have to get the human population up if we want to have a chance at surviving the next century, but that's hardly a fucking conundrum.

    Her lips twitch for a moment, and I'm certain she just won a bet with herself. “It goes like this. When the computers took over in the beginning, all of humanity was loaded into the pods. But the problem is this; we've discovered roughly as many people in pods as there were in late 20th-century Earth. But the records we've recovered indicate that there were maybe twice as many people, possibly even more than that, on Earth at the time. So what happened to them?”

    I shrug. “Machines killed 'em off? Surplus to requirements?” But even as I say it, I know how stupid that sounds. The computers needed us as living batteries. The thing about humans is, we can die at any time, for the stupidest fucking reasons. Trip over the curb, walk down the wrong alley, eat the wrong food. I mean, fuck allergies, right? And if a human dies in the Matrix, he dies in the real world too. If there's anything a computer understands, it's the need to keep a backup power supply. “... no, that doesn't make sense.”

    The Captain smiles slightly and gives me this tiny nod, like I've just passed a test. “Precisely. So a very high-powered team of investigators started searching the hidden corners of the Matrix. And they found something. Which is why we're here.”

    I sit up, suddenly interested. “Why do I get the impression that 'here' isn't marked on any official map, and that we're travelling under secret orders?” Captain Hornblower, bless her leathery heart, is now my favourite person in all the world. If what I think she's leading up to is true, I'm gonna get to lead the exploration of a whole new section of the Matrix. I'm totally repenting now for making up that nickname for her (though it was funny at the time).

    “Because you're one of my best people.” I'm actually impressed. She manages to say that with a straight face. Then, of course, she ruins it. “You're insubordinate, disrespectful and have only the vaguest idea of military discipline.” I dunno about that; there was this one lieutenant I used to date who really enjoyed being strapped down and paddled. But maybe she's not talking about that sort of discipline. “However, you're resourceful, intelligent, and you think on your feet. As it stands, we can't send a team in. So you'll be on your own for the time being.”

    Whoops, time to back things up. “Okay, what now, Captain? I'm going in solo? I'm good, but I was hoping to have a couple grunts to back me up.”

    She looks like someone overdosed the lemon flavouring in her gruel. “I'd like that too, but this is a particularly bizarre situation. This corner of the Matrix was sectioned off by two separate sub-programs of the Mainframe, which sealed themselves in after setting it all up. One of the programs crashed after they kicked over the emulation, and some of the locals have literally been picking out fragments of the crashed program and incorporating it into themselves.”

    I have to blink at that. “When you say 'bizarre' you ain't just waving the word around for fun. Holy crap. Anything else I need to look out for?”

    She nods. “Yes. Remember how the One managed to write superhuman powers like flight into his avatar? Well, the program that didn't crash is literally handing out powers like this to the locals.” Her face twists in distaste. “And the worst bit? It calls itself Zion.”

    My fists clench at that. Zion is a sacred name for all of us redpills, for obvious reasons. “Oh, it did not just go there. When I get my hands on that pile of crappily-written code—”

    “You won't.” She doesn't have to raise her voice to interrupt me. “It's given itself god-mode, making it able to suspend use of other reality-adjusting code at will. You don't go after it. Your mission is to go into this place, look around, and see what it looks like at ground level. Once we get a good solid recon picture, that's when we start upgrading the mission profile. Until then, you're under the radar. You don't even try to tell people the truth about the world. If you have to break cover, you pretend to be one of the enhanced individuals. Nobody will think otherwise.”

    “Huh.” I rub an old scar on my cheek. “Okay, I'm gonna need a fairly comprehensive loadout—”

    “No.” For the second time in a minute, she interrupts me. “The connection we've got isn't a strong one. We can't drop a whole person through and be certain that nothing will detect the arrival. However, we have been able to kludge together a modified Agent-style entry mod.”

    I frown. “I must be getting slow in my old age. I thought we wanted to go low profile. Me replacing one of the natives is probably gonna raise a few eyebrows.”

    “I said 'modified',” the Captain says a little testily. “The host won't look any different, but you'll be in the pilot's seat, with access to the host's memories. She'll be on lockdown while you're in her head. Plus, you'll have your own skills and capabilities. Also, we'll sneak in a phone so you can contact us and get pulled out for downtime.”

    That seems kind of reasonable, though there were a few points I thought needed raising. “Whoever I replace is gonna be pissed. And what if they're popular? It's hard to fake being who you're not if a lot of people know who you're supposed to be.”

    “Give us some credit.” The Captain's smile is thin. “We've got you a good candidate. Loner, no friends. Nobody's going to be listening to her, even if she wants to make problems over this.”

    Well, it's not something I've ever done before, but I'm always up for new experiences, so I nod. “Sure. We got much in the way of uploads for local conditions before I dive in?” I don't ask for stupid shit like standard urban-infiltration skills. Skillsets like that got uploaded back when I was still in my single digits for Matrix insertions.

    “Not enough for an upload.” She laces her fingers before her. “As far as we can tell, the Zion program played fast and loose with the geography and politics of New England when setting up the emulation. You'll be dropping into a city called Brockton Bay, into the head of a teenage girl called Taylor Hebert. She's got almost exactly the same build as you, so you won't have much trouble adjusting. Current date is January third, twenty-eleven.”

    As I wait for the rest of it, Captain Hornblower sits there, looking at me until the penny drops. There is no 'rest of it'. That's all she's got.

    “Well, shit.” I raise my eyebrows. “How many of the crew know about this?” If I know that bunch of low-lives, they'll be betting on how fast I screw everything up. It's what I'd be doing. I find myself wondering if I've got time to get in on that action.

    “You, me and the operator.” Hornblower's gaze is direct. “This mission is as covert as it gets. If even a whisper gets out about this, we'll be overrun by a dozen different activist groups, all trying to grab lead. Which will be about ten minutes before they start shooting at each other. We need to get a good solid foothold here, which means establishing a covert presence. The more we know about this 'Earth Bet', the better off we'll be in the long run.”

    I nod in agreement. Having better information now would be nice, but that's the sort of shit that happens when you're a kick-ass covert operative. We're the source of better information for everyone else. “Got it, Captain. The more I can find out, the more likely we are to prevent a shooting war, yeah?”

    Just for a second, I imagine that I see a look of respect in her eye. “Succinctly put, Morrigan. I've got a stack of papers here from the operations committee, detailing your operating parameters for this mission. Unfortunately, half of them completely contradict the other half. So I'm going to make an executive decision, with the certain knowledge that you'd ignore them anyway, and tell you to use your own judgement. And try not to end the world.”

    “Wait, that's a thing there?” For a moment, I'm startled. “Maybe that's something you should've led with, Captain.”

    She shrugs. “There are some really odd bits of reality-adjusting code running around loose in the system. It's not likely, but it's not impossible either. So be careful about what bears you poke.” As she says that, she gives me a hard look. I gaze back as innocently as I can manage. Given that we both know I make a hobby out of poking bears, it's not very convincing.

    Finally, she sighs. “Well, try not to let this blow up in our faces. Even if you only screw this up a little bit, we get it taken off us, and nutjobs like Free Humanity will be all over that place like cockroaches, trying to tell all and sundry that they're not living in the real world. If they react like I think they will, a lot of people will die before we have a chance to get them out.”

    I can see why she's worried. In the wake of the fall of the Mainframe, we had radical groups springing up faster than you could ask 'red pill or blue?'. Some advocated dumping people from their pods as fast as they could be located, while others decided that if the computers could use them for a power supply, so could we. I'm part of the middle ground; the more people we can show the truth to, the fewer there will be of the next generation to be stuck in the Matrix. Eventually, everyone will be out, and we can shut down the networks and start learning what it really means to be human. But in the meantime, we're gonna need operatives like me, going into the various outposts of the Matrix and seeing what's in there.

    I stand up from my chair. “Don't worry about it, Captain. I've never destroyed the world before.” Turning, I head for the door. Behind me, I hear the Captain mumble something. “Sorry, what was that?”

    “Nothing.” She sounds grumpy. I hide a grin, because we both know I heard what she said. Always a first time. Me, I'm an optimist. The world might not blow up tomorrow, but that's no reason to live like it won't.

    <><>​

    I'm just settling myself into the chair when the hatch opens and the operator steps through. I stare in real horror. “Oh, fuck no. Captain, not him!”

    Loki gives me a toothy grin as he settles down at the console. “Whassamatter, More-grin? Finally realising that shit comes back at you sometimes?”

    “Shut it, the two of you.” The Captain is typing on another console, sending instructions to the bridge. “Loki, Morrigan, I get it that you can't stand each other. But you're the best I've got. Now zip your lips and work together or I swear I'll jack you both into the same ten by ten cell and leave you there.”

    I shoot a poisonous glare at Loki. “Fine, but if he messes with me while I'm in there, I'm gonna punch his lights out once I get out.”

    “Pfft,” he snorts. “You don't need me to help you fuck up. You're a natural at it already.” But as he talks, he's already typing. I can see the screen over his shoulder, starting the cascade of green symbols. “Okay, searching for an uplink signal now.”

    “No, no, I told you this was a different setup.” The Captain abandons her keyboard and goes to his, where she inputs some code strings. I see the pattern on the green waterfall change subtly. “See? We've got to brute-force it through. We're taking over the Matrix headspace of a native.”

    “All right then,” he says. “I think I got it now.” As the Captain moves aside, he puts on the headset and starts watching the screen, typing commands again. “Any time you're ready.”

    “Good.” Captain Hornblower comes over to where I'm trying to relax. “Just think of it as a standard Matrix insertion. Try not to do anything that'll get you noticed straight out of the gate.”

    “But even if I do, I can claim superhuman powers, right?” I look up at her. “I mean, that's a thing there.”

    “True,” she muses. “But it might be an idea to keep that sort of thing on the down-low. Until we've got more information, of course.” Seating herself beside me, she takes hold of the main jack. “Operator?”

    “Green to go,” he says, the tension audible in his voice. I see him poised over the keyboard, fingers at the ready.

    Captain Hornblower slides the jack home. I go down the rabbit hole.

    Part Two
     
    Last edited: Nov 25, 2017
  3. Starfox5

    Starfox5 Versed in the lewd.

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    Very interesting setup there. Can't wait to see what happens upon insertion. Morrigan sounds about as prone to violence as late-canon Taylor. I guess Sophia will have a very different impression here.
     
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  4. Alexcorvin

    Alexcorvin Not too sore, are you?

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    At first blush, I thought, "Oh god, why Ack? Why?"
    Then I started to think about it. I can see where the two would merge together almost flawlessly. Both are semi crap sack worlds and both are basically run by computers (or biocomputers in Worm's case). And I could see the way the setup works.
    Quick question, though, are we assuming that the end of the movie is canonical? Cause I thought the whole idea of the story after the first movie was that the whole thing with Neo was some sort of 'cyclical' thing and that Smith was an abbe ration and threatening the whole deal. But Neo's sacrifice ended it. It was left sort of ambiguous about whether or not the Matrix would remain or if all the humans within it would get 'unplugged'.
    But from the sounds of it, the Mainframe, which I'm guessing is the main Matrix reality, got taken down because of the whole Smith thing? Neo and Trinity are both still dead. Morpheus and the rest who were alive at the end are all still alive, right?
    Is any of the Cauldron conspirators going to be 'let in' on the whole 'the whole multiverse thing is a lie created by a very cunning computer program' thing? If not, can we assume Contessa is like the Keymaker or Oracle or whatever? A program fighting for the protection and freeing of the humans stuck in 'Earth Bet'?
    Sorry if this is all stuff you were going to reveal later, and that's fine. But I'm really curious now. God darn it, Ack, you and your damn... YOU!
     
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  5. Ack

    Ack (Verified Ratbag) (Unverified Great Old One)

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    For now, assume that everyone inside Worm is buying into the illusion. Though some might be having doubts ...
     
  6. SwiftRosenthal

    SwiftRosenthal Connoisseur.

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    This is the most unique explanation for an SI I've ever seen. MUCHO CRED.

    I'll assume that GU doesn't. Supersanity is a hell of a drug.
     
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  7. Darkarma

    Darkarma Loli Tentacle Slime

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    GU Is an example of the One who went insane rather than becoming a hero. All the power of neo, none of his inhibitions, and completely off her rocker.
     
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  8. MadGreenSon

    MadGreenSon Verified Devil Tiger

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    I don't think this is an SI, Ack is not likely built much like Taylor Hebert.
     
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  9. SwiftRosenthal

    SwiftRosenthal Connoisseur.

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    OC insert, then. The mechanic is basically the same.
     
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  10. MadGreenSon

    MadGreenSon Verified Devil Tiger

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    That's fair. It's too bad the sequels to the Matrix kind of soured my taste for it. It's been a long time since I read a 'fic involving the Matrix. I'll give this one a shot because Ack.
     
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  11. Ack

    Ack (Verified Ratbag) (Unverified Great Old One)

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    I won't be delving too far into the esoterica of the Matrix; it'll be more about looking at Worm through the lens of the Matrix, if that makes sense.
     
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  12. MadGreenSon

    MadGreenSon Verified Devil Tiger

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    I trust you to write decently. It's not really the esoterica that I cared about, it that the two sequels were basically crap movies that weren't fun to watch. Also, postmodernism. Hate postmodern philosophy. It's dumb.
     
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  13. GladiusLucix

    GladiusLucix I trust you know where the happy button is?

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    I'm already feeling sorry for Taylor and her oncoming development of Disassociative Identity Disorder. Her life sucks enough without (apparently) going (even more) crazy.
     
  14. Threadmarks: Part Two: Being Taylor Hebert is Suffering
    Ack

    Ack (Verified Ratbag) (Unverified Great Old One)

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    Part Two: Being Taylor Hebert is Suffering

    [A/N: This chapter beta-read by Lady Columbine of Mystal.]

    I'm in a tightly confined space, with a sore head and the echoes of a scream in my ears. The worst smell I've ever experienced assaults my nose. There's the taste of vomit already in my mouth. I'm up to my hips in something sludgy. Bugs are crawling all over me.

    For a moment, I'm about to throw up again, but then I recall the most important, most fundamental lesson about the Matrix. Do you think that's air you're breathing now? It's not, of course. Whatever I'm sensing is merely a computer simulation. With that knowledge, I force down the nausea and try to work out where I am. This does not seem to be a normal place for a teenager in New England to be, at the beginning of the school year.

    Wait a minute. Hornblower said I could access the memories of the kid I've just taken over. I blink in the darkness, and a green curtain of code descends over my eyesight. Okay, rewind. There's a brief blur, then I'm looking at a high-school locker from the outside. There's that smell again, only not so bad. I look around, to see a smirking redhead, then back to my locker. The combination goes into the lock, and I open the door. This was not a great move, as the smell really hits me about then. Also, now I can see the horrific mass. It doesn't look any better than it smells. I go to throw up, but then I'm shoved forward into the locker with some serious force. I hit my head—so that's why it's sore—then I'm shoved all the way in, and the door is locked behind me. Ah hah. Got it. So it appears that felony-level pranks are a thing, in this iteration of human civilisation. Something to keep in mind.

    I end the replay, now that I know where I am. My back is hard against a metal surface, which has to be the locker door. This is made of thin steel, less than a millimetre thick. Works for me. I bring up my hands and place them flat on the back of the locker, then pull back a few centimetres. This is a simulation. I can bend reality. I can bend steel.

    Nobody ever makes the Jump on their first try when they're introduced to the Matrix, not even me. But I did make it on my second try. I'm good at selectively ignoring reality. I slam my hands forward, driving my back into the locker door. With a screech of tearing metal, it rips clear off of its hinges. I fall back out of the locker, stumbling clear of the worst of the decomposing mass of … are those tampons? I don't care if this isn't really me, I'm gonna kick someone's ass so hard for this.

    I could keep my head down and go get cleaned up, or I could deal with this my way. It takes me another moment to dip back into the kid's memories, until I find the redhead. Then I send a silent query into the database. Who and where?

    Green lettering spills across in front of my eyes.

    Name: Emma Barnes

    Status: Ex best friend. Current bully.

    Location: Mr Gladly's World Affairs class (home room)

    Chances of being involved in the locker incident: very high.

    All right then. I follow up on the 'World Affairs' thing, giving me a school layout and a classroom to go to. I'm very carefully not breathing through my nose; the stink, even though I'm leaving most of it behind me, is incredible. Repressing my gag reflex, even knowing it's not real, is hard work. Right now, I want to scrub out my sinuses with bleach and a wire brush.

    Nobody is in the hallways, which is a good thing … for them. I'm in the mood to hurt someone. Though the janitor is gonna be so pissed with me; some of the stuff came out of the locker with me and is now falling off my legs. Not my school, not my problem.

    I get to the right door. It's not even locked; I open it and go in. A classroom full of heads turns to look at me, along with the teacher. He's young, my height or a little shorter, and I can see straight away that he's got no idea what to do about me. That's fine; I wasn't going to try to appeal to him anyway. I fix on the redheaded girl, the one I saw in the memory file. She stares at me, her eyes widening, as I head straight for her.

    Someone tries to trip me; I plant my other foot and swing my leg through theirs. It's a disproportionate application of force. There's a clatter behind me as whoever it is falls off their chair and on to the floor. By the time Emma realises she's actually in danger, I'm at her desk. Reaching out, I grab her by the ear. She's got a fancy earring that I could hook my finger through, but that's got too much chance of tearing the ear or breaking the earring. My finger and thumb close on her ear instead, and I turn and head back toward the door.

    Emma follows, of course; it's either that or she loses an ear. She's got a good line in high-pitched screams, especially when I haul her out of her chair with almost the full weight of her body resting on her ear. But she gets her feet under her and comes along, batting ineffectually at my hand with both of hers. Oh, wait, she's trying to dig her nails in. That's almost adorable.

    “Taylor, what are you doing?” Mr Gladly is between me and the door. “And what's that smell? What is that on you?”

    I pause for a moment, and call up the database. Correlate 'Mr Gladly' and 'bullying'. Images and clips flash before me; this Gladly clown standing by, time and again, while other girls—and sometimes boys—steal my work and harass me in other ways. Well, not me me; the kid. Taylor. But even that's bad enough. While it's not exactly my job as a female Operative to stand up for the rights of all women (and girls) in the Matrix, I tend to think of it as a perk.

    “Good,” I say coolly. “You're paying attention at last. Go check out my locker. Bring a hazmat suit. I gotta go get cleaned up.” I take a step closer; he edges away, not willing to come into close contact with me. Not that I blame him right now, but he could've stood to get his hands dirty earlier, when Taylor was being shat on from a great height.

    “Mr Gladly!” Emma's voice is high-pitched, desperate. “Help! Call the principal! Don't let her take me!”

    He reaches for her arm; before he can make contact, I flick one of the things that's still clinging to my leg so that it arcs toward him. Convulsively, he steps back, and I drag Emma away. She's still shrieking as I look over my shoulder to see him standing indecisively at the door to the classroom. He's got his phone to his ear, but I'm not sure who he's calling. Nor do I really care.

    Now to deal with the noise problem. I twist Emma's ear to get her attention, then pull her close to me. “Shut the fuck up, princess,” I snap, “or I'll give you something to really scream about.” She stares at me, her eyes wide in a tearful face, but she does shut up. Which is good; my ears were starting to hurt.

    Taylor's memory database gives me a location for a bathroom. I head on in and shove Emma at a washbasin. “Fill it,” I order her. She looks at me uncomprehendingly. I point at the basin. “Fill. It,” I repeat, then start to take off my jeans.

    She tries to make a bolt for it then, but I've allowed for that. Even with one leg caught in the jeans, I grab her by the hair and swing her around. With one hand on the back of her neck, I smack her face into the washbasin bench. There's a crunch, and I suspect I just broke her nose. Whoops. Her knees give way, but I hold her up with one hand and splash water on her face with the other. She quickly comes around again, but her nose definitely looks broken and there's a bruise forming on her forehead. I'd be sympathetic, except I'm not.

    “Fill the fucking basin, or I'm gonna see exactly how far I can shove your head down the goddamn toilet.” My voice is flat, and I think she realises exactly how serious I am. Crying a little and sniffling through her busted nose, she gets some paper towels. One she tears up and shoves up her nose to stop the bleeding, and the other she crumples up and uses as a plug in the washbasin.

    I finish taking my jeans off, and kick my shoes off at the same time. Looking at my hoodie, I take that off too, then check my shirt, which also joins the pile. “Clean that shit off,” I order her.

    She stares at me, standing there barefoot in my underwear, then at the pile of shit-covered clothing. “Whad habbe'd to you, Daylor?” she mumbles. “Whad're you doi'g?”

    “I didn't say 'ask stupid fucking questions',” I remind her. “I said 'clean that shit off'.” I cheat just a bit as I crack my knuckles; it sounds like firecrackers going off. Hurriedly, she picks up the pile of clothing, cringing back as some of the shit gets on her hands.

    “Wait a minute,” I say. “Jeans.” Grabbing the item in question, I go through the pockets. There's a coin purse there, along with the standard-issue Matrix-diving phone. Dropping the purse on the bench, I toss the jeans back at her. “Get to it.”

    Hurriedly, she starts trying to scrub the shit out of the heavy cloth as I turn away. I flick the phone open, hit the button and hold it to my ear.

    Operator.” Loki answers immediately.

    “You're an asshole,” I tell him heatedly, though keeping it quiet enough that Emma can't hear me. I hope. “You picked the worst possible moment for me to go in.”

    It's the best possible moment for someone to have a personality change though, right?” He sounds altogether too pleased with himself. “What's with the redhead doing your laundry?”

    “Long story,” I mutter. “Any alarm bells yet?”

    Nope, though the cops just got called,” he says. “Have fun with that.”

    I grimace. Cops are no fun to deal with. They're as squishy as any other bluepill, but there's so many of them. After a while, it feels like kicking puppies. At least there won't be any Agents to deal with. “Can you organise an exit strategy?”

    Well, we can pull you out,” he suggests.

    “No, you asshole.” I grit my teeth. “This kid's already had a world of shit poured on her. I pull out now, what I've just done comes back on her in spades. I need a strategy for both of us.”

    You're no fun,” he whines. “Okay, fine. Walk out now, or talk to the cops about the locker. One of the two.”

    Talking to the cops sounds like a bad idea. Though the locker is something I can definitely show them. I probably won't be able to prove that Emma was in on it. “Talk to the cops? Are you actually serious about that?”

    Hey, you're a teenage girl who got locked in her locker. Pretty sure you can plead temporary insanity. Or in your case, permanent insanity.” The asshole chuckles, and I want to punch him.

    The bathroom door flies open, booming as it hits the stop, and a black girl stomps in. She's about my height, and she looks pissed. That look changes a little to confusion as she sees me in my underwear, but then she looks past me. “Emma,” she says. “You all right?”

    “I thi'k by dose id broke'd,” Emma mumbles past the plugs in her nostrils. “Tha'k God you're here.”

    I fix on the black girl and run a facial search in Taylor's memory. Immediately, I get a dozen hits.

    Name: Sophia Hess.

    Status: Bully, bitch and athlete.

    Really strong and fast. Dangerous. Aggressive.

    Something strikes me, and I find myself on the floor with an ache in my solar plexus. Sophia Hess is standing over me, fists clenched. “You've just never learned—”

    If she's as dangerous as all that, I need to regroup. It might be that she just hit me because I was occupied with the database search, but there's no sense in borrowing trouble. Bringing my legs up, I flip out of the way of a kick and come to my feet. Sophia's eyes widen, but she comes in at me again anyway.

    I cover up, ready to defend until I've got her capabilities pegged. Her fist lashes out, this time aiming at my face. But I'm a little confused; Taylor's got her down as being fast. This is barely above average for a bluepill. I've got all the time in the world to respond. Unless it's a feint. Is it a feint? I check her posture, and I can't see the rest of the attack. For all I can see, she's committed to this.

    It's embarrassing to admit, but I'm concentrating so hard on seeing the trap that I nearly let her tag me with the second punch. At the last split-second, I tilt my head to the side and let her fist slide on by. That's when I grab her arm and put her in a hold. Nothing fancy, but definitely nothing she'll be able to get out of. Leverage is fun like that.

    Satisfied that she's locked down, I turn my head toward Emma. “How are you going with that?” She's staring at me and Sophia—obviously hoping that her friend will hand me my ass—but when I speak, she hastily turns back to the washbasin.

    “Uh, id's slow,” she says in a defensive tone. “Id does'd wa'd to cub oud.” She says something more, but I'm not paying attention. Because Sophia Hess has just done the impossible; she's gotten out of my hold. She didn't brute-force her way out of it, like any other redpill would do, and she didn't slide out. But between one second and the next, she simply isn't there any more. I have got to find out what she did there.

    I'm impressed, but not so impressed that I don't go on full guard. Which turns out to be a wise move, because the Hess girl is right back on the attack. This time, she does go with a feint; a jab at my face, followed by a solid left to the solar plexus. Of course, to me, it's basically in slow motion; give this girl a red pill and a proper martial-arts upload and she might be dangerous. As it is, I almost have to hold back a yawn.

    The jab, if I let it hit, might sting a bit. I'm not inclined to give her even that much, so I casually brush it aside like a mosquito. Her face twists in triumph as she puts her weight behind the gut-punch, but it's a little premature. This is brought home to her in no uncertain terms as I pull off an unconventional move; I put my hand out and catch her fist in it.

    Unconventional, yes, but effective as hell. She goggles at her fist, now trapped in my hand, as if she can't believe what's happening. The look lasts just long enough for me to step forward and lay a nice crisp head-butt on her. When I broke Emma's nose, it was by accident; with Sophia, it's deliberate. Sophia's knees go out from under, and her eyes roll back in her head. Blood is already beginning to trickle from her nostrils as she hits the tiled floor. I let go of her fist and grab the front of her top just long enough to make sure she doesn't bang her head as she goes down.

    “Emma,” I say, looking down at Sophia. “Leave that. Come here.”

    My comprehensive defeat of Sophia seems to have knocked the last of the fight out of Emma. She comes a little closer, keeping to what she probably thinks is a safe distance. I don't disabuse her of the notion. “Whad you wa'd be to do?”

    I point at the jeans Sophia is wearing. They'll be a little baggy on me, but they're about the right length. As a bonus, she's got a belt as well. “Help me get her pants off.” Sophia's sneakers aren't to my taste, but I do like the zip-up knee-length boots Emma's wearing. “And your boots. Plus your top.” It's just as stylish—and expensive—as the rest of her outfit. I definitely won't be able to rock it like she is, but I'd prefer it over a hoodie, crap-stained or otherwise. Would it have killed Loki to outfit me with a long coat? I love those things.

    For a moment, it looks like she's going to argue, but then she catches the look in my eye and shuts up. Wordlessly, she helps me strip Sophia of her jeans, then unzips her boots. I step into the pants, pulling them up to cover my butt. The belt looks like it can pull in to cover my new waistline—I don't think I've ever been this skinny—which I was kinda hoping for. “So,” I say as I cinch it in as tight as it'll go. “What's with that trick she pulled? She got one of those weird abilities?”

    I look up from the belt to see her staring at me, eyes wide. Lips pressed tightly together, she shakes her head almost feverishly. “I do'd doe whad you're dalki'g aboud,” she says, in a tone that wouldn't convince a two-year-old.

    In other words, “yes, but there's a taboo about it”. Got it. “Right, okay, forget I asked,” I say. Holding out my hand to her, I snap my fingers. “Top.”

    I'm pretty sure she's attached to her blouse, or maybe she's just modest. Again, the temptation to argue must have crossed her mind, but I snap my fingers for a second time, like I'm getting impatient. Reluctantly, one button at a time, she undoes the shirt. I give her a hard look, and she hurries up quite a bit.

    The boots fit quite nicely over the jeans, and the top looks pretty good in the mirror. Sophia is starting to groan and stir feebly by the time I do up the last button. There's something else … oh, right. I was holding my phone when Sophia hit me. “Where's my phone?” I ask out loud, putting my hand to my ear like I'm making a call. Emma stares at me mutinously, but I'm not talking to her.

    Operators might not be able to talk to you when you're not on the line, but they can see what you're doing just fine. On cue, the phone starts ringing; somehow, it ended up in one of my shit-covered shoes. A couple of wet fingermarks on it explains how this odd thing happened. Emma backs away as I advance on her.

    <><>​

    When I emerge from the bathroom a few moments later, I'm carrying Sophia's t-shirt and Emma's skirt. Emma's phone isn't on her, so if either of them wants to go for help, they're gonna have to do it either in underwear or in my wet crappy clothes. I dump the skirt and top in the first trash can I come to. In the meantime, I'm back on the phone. “Okay, now I do need an extraction plan. I just beat up two girls and stole their clothes.”

    Gotta say, Moggie, you know how to win friends and influence people wherever you go.” Loki sounds like he's holding back laughter. “The option to pull you out is still on the table.”

    I shake my head. “Screw that. I need to have this girl in a more viable position when I jack out. Otherwise, fuck knows what'll happen to her while I'm on downtime.” I'm taking the stairwell down as fast as I can, which basically means leaping over the rail to skip a whole flight of stairs at a time. “Where's the nearest motorbike, car or whatever I can hotwire?”

    Now he actually does laugh. “Only you would look at stealing a car as a valid way to de-escalate the situation. I'm telling you, just walk out the front door. You'll be fine.”

    By now I'm low on options. So I walk up to the main doors and consider what I'm going to see when I open them. In every other op I've been on, a clusterfuck of this magnitude would've had the authorities on alert and seen the parking lot full of cop cars. There'd be flashing lights everywhere, guns pointed in my direction, and probably a helicopter or two overhead. Oh, and of course there'd be Agents. Some pockets of the Matrix still maintain them.

    I'm pretty sure there aren't any Agents here—though I've been wrong before—but even without them, life's gonna get really fucking interesting for a while. I decide that even if I can't jack a police motorbike, a car should do just as well.

    Okay, it's showtime. I shove open the doors and go out in a roll, looking for cover against the inevitable storm of bullets. Reaching my objective behind a low concrete wall, I come up on one knee and pause. When I run the last few seconds past my mind's eye, I frown, having not registered any shots at all. Cautiously, I peer over the top of the wall.

    There are no cop cars. There aren't any cops, either. In fact, if not for the fact that it's fucking January, my dive-and-roll would've been greeted with the sound of crickets. Slowly, I come to my feet and look around to see if it's some kind of elaborate ambush. An army of SWAT totally fails to leap out of non-existent cover.

    I scratch my head, then start down the steps. I don't get this at all. This isn't how it works. Operatives start shit, then Agents and cops show up to shut them down. It's like I threw a party and nobody came. I'm almost insulted. I'd been looking forward to rocking one of those cop shotguns, too. The ultimate party accessory.

    The sound of air brakes gets my attention. Has an Agent taken over the driver of an eighteen-wheeler with the aim of running me down? But when I look toward the road, all I see is a bus, pulling in at the bus stop. What the hell. Reaching into my pocket, I pull out the coin purse. I've never left the scene on a bus before, but I guess there's a first time for everything.

    Part Three
     
    Last edited: Nov 29, 2017
  15. Starfox5

    Starfox5 Versed in the lewd.

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    Ah, what a reality check! Reminds me on the scene in "Last Action hero" in the alley.

    Very satisfying to see the Sophia and Emma taken down a few pegs.
     
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  16. MadGreenSon

    MadGreenSon Verified Devil Tiger

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    Yeah, most Resistance members in the Matrix are a lot like the Terminator when it comes to handling shit due to a lack of time to fuck around and a certain necessary detachment due to how Agents spawn in. They can't let themselves be sympathetic to a coppertop no matter how much they'd like to in principle. Even if Agents are not in use here, those patterns of behavior are still present.
     
  17. Starfox5

    Starfox5 Versed in the lewd.

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    I meant the "I just shot a man... where are the cops?" scene.
     
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  18. Darkarma

    Darkarma Loli Tentacle Slime

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    Yeah Matrix even when they were just ordinary mooks were a lot more on the ball than in reality, hell even Worm probably had decent response times if only because Velocity threw out the bell curve. But a school fight at Winslow? That's not even something minor. Its an annoyance.
     
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  19. seeing_octarine

    seeing_octarine Unverified Colour

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    I am looking forward to the redpills discovering the reasons for how the entities' operate, giving out powers to gather data on how to creatively use them. Seems like it would lead very neatly into a reveal that the "human battery" idea is wrong and the matrix was made to harness human brains as processors or something of that nature, ie what the plot was going to be before executive meddling happened.
     
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  20. MadGreenSon

    MadGreenSon Verified Devil Tiger

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    What the real question would be is that if that's why they're giving out powers, what's the point? Unless you have access to the same voodoo as the One, funny Matrix tricks have no real world applications.
     
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  21. Ack

    Ack (Verified Ratbag) (Unverified Great Old One)

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    Getting human brains to refine the code to create programs that run more smoothly?

    Gives a whole new meaning to the term 'crowdsourcing'.
     
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  22. Threadmarks: Part Three: Gathering Information
    Ack

    Ack (Verified Ratbag) (Unverified Great Old One)

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    Part Three: Gathering Information

    [A/N: This chapter beta-read by Lady Columbine of Mystal]

    I'm pulling out Taylor's coin-purse to pay the bus driver when I notice something I should've picked up before. Sophia's belt has actual pouches on it. Two of them. And there's something in them. I don't draw attention to the fact that I've just noticed this; instead, I get out the purse.

    “How far ya goin', kid?” he grunts, like he's not even surprised that someone's leaving school mid-morning. My estimate of the school system in this town, already low, starts making preparations to plumb the Marianas Trench.

    Which gives me an idea of where I should go. “Uh, library?” I ask, as if I'm not sure about it. Or like I'm just throwing it out like an excuse. Get off at the library, go to the mall or whatever. Pretty sure this guy's heard it all.

    “Sure thing,” he says. “Three fifty.” No what are you doing out of school, or does your mom know where you are. Just three fifty. I shrug and dig out some coins. There's a weird-looking coin among the dimes and quarters and stuff; when I look closer, it turns out to be a dollar. This place is getting weirder all the time. I drop three dollars and two quarters into his hand, shove the purse back in my pocket, and climb on board the bus.

    There's fuck-all people on there with me, but I've still got residual Agent-paranoia going on, so I go all the way to the back where I can keep an eye on them all. Once I'm there, I check out the contents of the pouches. The first one's a flip-phone, a well-worn model that looks a couple years old. And the second one's … huh. This one's a brand-new smart-phone. The case is barely scratched, even.

    I sit back in my seat as the bus rumbles down the road, and examine the two different phones. Okay, this is a bit of a puzzle. But that's good, because I like solving puzzles. Okay, I like breaking shit until puzzles aren't puzzling any more, but that's almost the same thing.

    Hypothesis one: only one phone belongs to her. The other one's stolen, or she's holding it for someone. Something like that.

    Counter to hypothesis one: this belt belongs to her, and the pouches are purpose-built. Conclusion: both phones are hers.

    Hypothesis two: one's a normal phone and one's a special phone. But what sort of special phone? I look at the worn phone, then the new one. There's no good reason I can think of for a teenager like Sophia Hess to hold on to the older one when she's got the newer one.

    Fuck it. I give up trying to use deduction and brainpower to solve the mystery, and hit the wake-up button on the new phone. It wakes up, all right, but then it asks for a PIN. Which puts me back at square one. Without much hope, I try the same with the older phone. To my surprise, it wakes up just fine and opens its secrets to me.

    The fuck? Why password one phone but not the other?

    The answer comes to me immediately, of course. Because there's nothing important on the crappy old phone. All the good stuff's on the sleek new one. That's the only logical conclusion.

    Still, it doesn't stop me from looking at the old phone. No sense in not checking it out. There still might be something on there that's of interest to me. And until I can get the PIN code for the new one, it's my only option.

    On the surface, the phone's pretty vanilla. Contact list includes Emma and someone called Madison, as well as numbers for a Mom, a Terry, an Alan, and a few others. Not many, which isn't really a surprise. I hadn't picked Sophia as a social butterfly. Pit bull maybe, but not a butterfly. I make a bet to myself that if I ever manage to lift Emma's phone, she'll have ten times as many contacts.

    The interesting bit is when I start skimming her saved text messages. Taken one at a time, they don't say much. But put a whole bunch together and they paint a really fucking horrific picture of relentless borderline-sociopathic bullying. Sophia and her friends are starting to look like people I'd gladly throw under any bus I'd care to name. They never name Taylor specifically in these texts, but from context it's pretty damning. It looks like they've been going at her for a fucking long time, maybe years. What I don't get is why. Actually, no. What I actually don't get is why she hasn't snapped and gone psycho on their asses already. I certainly fucking would've. Oh, wait, I already did. All of a sudden, my minimal regret for breaking their noses becomes care factor zero.

    To distract myself, I eye the new, holy-shit, high-tech phone. My guess is that any missing parts of this puzzle are to be found on it. Trouble is, it's protected by what I suspect to be the best encryption money can buy. This doesn't mean I'm stopped, of course. It just means that I'm stopped unless I do something I really don't want to do.

    Unfortunately, my options are few and far between. I'm gonna have to ask Loki for help. And I just know that the asshole's gonna be so fucking smug about it. I'm beginning to regret kicking him in the nuts the last time we sparred. Well, almost.

    With a sigh, I pull out my own phone and flip it open, then hit the call button.

    Operator.” I can almost hear the smug in his voice.

    With a sigh, I bite the bullet. “Need the PIN code for this phone.” Phones, of course, are just chunks of code in the Matrix. Digging into them for the on/off switch is child's play for a good Operator. And as insufferable as he might be, Loki's a kick-ass Operator.

    Wow, this is low, even for you. Going through a teenager's cell-phones? How low can you go?” He's fucking enjoying this. I visualise kicking him in the nuts, again. “Just do it, okay? You know she's one of the weird ones. I wanna see what this high-tech piece of shit is about.”

    Yeah, about that. Gotta say, I didn't expect her to tag you like that. That one's going in the greatest hits file.” I'd wondered when he was going to pull that up. Also, how long it's gonna take me to live it down.

    “Fuck you. Gimme the PIN code.” We both know he can't actually refuse a request, but there's nothing in the regs against being fucking irritating while he does it.

    Okay, okay, don't get your panties in a wad. Sending the code to your phone now.” He hangs up; a moment later, a six-digit number pops up on my phone screen. I'm actually kind of impressed; most phones go for four digits. If I'd tried to brute-force it, there would've been a million combos to try. Fuck that shit.

    I enter the PIN in Sophia's phone and it lets me in. The interface is smooth and intuitive, almost anticipating my every need. Why can't we have shit like this? Anyway, I start looking through it. My first port of call, like with the other one, is Contacts. This one's got a different list of names; big surprise there. Except that these aren't names that I'd normally associate with normal people: Triumph, Aegis, Clockblocker, Gallant, Kid Win, Vista …

    “The fuck?” I mutter. “What kind of names are these?” Unless they're online handles or something. I blink as it occurs to me that Sophia might actually be more important than I'd thought. Maybe she's part of a hidden group that knows what the Matrix is and is working to get out or something. That's the way most people get recruited, after all. They start asking questions, the most important one being 'What is the Matrix?'

    Okay, so the bullying thing is a bit on the nose, but maybe she does it to fit in or something. I begin to wonder if I've misjudged her. When she wakes up, she'll be freaking out about her missing phone. I might have to figure out some way of getting into contact with her. Having a resistance cell already in place would make my job one fuck-load easier.

    I scroll a little farther to see what other names are there, and run head-first into my own assumptions. Because the very next two names are more corporate than symbolic; Director Piggot and Deputy Director Renick. What is this? A secret underground hacker group or a corporate think-tank?

    And then something occurs to me. I'm totally failing to make use of the best source of information I've got to hand. Specifically, Taylor Hebert's memories. Leaning back in my seat, I let the curtain of green slide down over my eyes as I concentrate on the names. If they're a secret underground group, Taylor won't know thing one about them, which will be a point in their favour. Of course, I'm gonna have to warn them to back the fuck off from her. Fitting in's one thing, but I'm not gonna let some teenage bitches wale on me for any fucking reason under the sun.

    To my surprise, the names get a hit. But the real surprise is the content of the hits. By the time I blink my eyes clear, my head's spinning a bit. Turns out that Taylor didn't know all the names, especially Piggot or Renick, but she knew Triumph and Aegis, as well as Clockblocker. I pause for a moment to reflect on exactly what sort of a mind would call themselves that, then move on.

    They aren't a secret underground resistance group. They're a bunch of fucking bona-fide government-sponsored kid superheroes called the Wards, complete with costumes and powers. Which means that they've all got chunks of anomalous code grafted on to them.

    My phone rings, and I answer it. “You are never gonna fuckin' believe this.”

    It can wait.” Loki's voice is brusque, even for him. “You gotta ditch the phone. It's got a trace program in it.”

    I stare at the smart-phone, holding it away from my body in case a metallic insect jumps out and burrows its way into my body. Saw a good buddy go out that way once; the fucking thing got to his brain and diced it. “You're shitting me. There's Agents involved after all?”

    For fuck's sake, Momo. I mean an actual trace program on the actual goddamn phone. They just activated it remotely. Ditch the fuckin' thing. Now.” Loki sounds both pissed and urgent, which convinces me.

    “Okay, fine,” I reply. The bus window takes a little effort to open, then I flick the phone on to a shop awning. “Ditched. Happy now?”

    No gratitude, I see. You know I probably just saved you from getting arrested or shot or whatever.”

    “Yeah, yeah, whatever.” I flip the phone shut, then grin. I suspect I know Sophia Hess' dirty little secret. By now I'm pretty sure she's not in the know about the Matrix. But I'm absolutely certain that she's gonna be shitting herself majorly over the loss of the phone. Of course, I'm not totally read in on all the details yet, but I have a fairly good idea where I can get access to those.

    <><>​

    Winslow High

    Sergeant Joe Casteli yawns as he slows down briefly to give a passing bus right of way at the intersection. He's been pulling some late nights over Christmas and New Year, mainly because there's always someone who chooses to be out and about causing trouble. Even now, two days later, he still hasn't caught up on all his sleep.

    The bus rumbles past and he lets the clutch out, rolling down the road until he gets to the entrance of the Winslow parking lot. This is a place he knows all too well. A week rarely goes by without a call-out to Brockton Bay's shittiest high school. Whether it's the Empire skinheads clashing with the ABB assholes, the ABB or Empire trashing the Merchant stoners or the Merchants selling drugs to anyone with the cash, he figures more crime goes on within those four walls than half the Docks.

    The rookie riding shotgun, a skinny black kid called French, looks puzzled as the car rolls past the allotted parking space for emergency vehicles. “Uh, sergeant, wasn't that …?”

    Casteli chuckles. A twenty-year man, he sometimes feels like he's been on the job more than twice that time. “We never drive straight in. Sometimes the gangs put metal spikes or broken glass in that spot. So instead we eyeball it on the way past and do a lap of the parking lot, just to see what stolen cars are in here today.” Taking one hand off the wheel, he points. “See that one? The red Honda? Plates look familiar. Run 'em, will ya?”

    “Uh, sure thing, sergeant.” French sits forward and begins to tap information into the fold-out keyboard. “Just, um … weren't we here to investigate a fight or something?” To his credit, he never pauses in his data entry.

    “Technically, yeah.” Casteli decides to pass on another pearl of wisdom. “Thing is, this is Winslow High. They don't go a day without a fight, not here. Even if it gets called in, by the time we get there all we can do is scrape up what's left and call an ambulance. Whatever's happened is done. Hell, half the time we can't even spare a uniform to check it out. It's always the same story, anyway. Nobody saw nothing. Not even the guy who's bleeding out on the goddamn floor.”

    From the look on French's face, he isn't prepared for this revelation. “But …” He pauses. “So why are we showing today?”

    Casteli nods and smiles. “Good question, French. This time it got called in by the principal. Woman called Blackwell. Apparently one of her model students got assaulted by one of the weird loners. Our job's to go in there, find out what happened, and let the little shit cool his heels overnight in the precinct house.” He pulls the cruiser into an empty parking space. After shutting the car down, he climbs out and stretches, swivelling his shoulders one way and then the other. Obligingly, vertebrae click in his back. I'm getting too old for this.

    French hooks his head toward the school. “Anything I should know before I go in?”

    Silently, Casteli commends the kid for thinking ahead. “Treat it like a gang bust. You're gonna draw shit from the skinheads, and we'll both get it from the ABB. They'll say anything to get you riled up. Don't let it happen. Keep your hand near your gun, but for fuck's sake do not draw down on anyone unless they're holding a weapon and directly threatening you or someone else.”

    With a serious expression on his face, French nods. “Got it.” Peering up at the grimy frontage of the school, he loosens his gun in its holster. “Like the training officer told us. Some parts of the city you gotta treat like the Wild West.”

    Casteli snorts. “That's about as good a description as any.” He tilts his head toward the car as he hits the key fob to lock it. “How'd the search turn up?”

    “Stolen.” French doesn't even sound surprised. He's learning fast.

    “Good. We'll deal with it on the way out.” Casteli leads the way up the stairs to the front doors and pushes them open. “Come on, let's get to the principal's office and see what she can tell us about what's going on.” He knows the way, of course; he's been here more than once before.

    French sniffs out loud, then does it again. “Uh, sergeant?”

    “What is it?” Casteli could've told him that sniffing, or even breathing deeply, inside Winslow isn't the smartest thing to do. God alone knows when they last cleaned the heating system. And he's got a sneaking suspicion that there's more than a bit of unreported asbestos in the walls. It looks like that kind of place.

    “Something stinks, sergeant.” French's face twists into a grimace. “I mean, it really stinks. Like something's dead. Or someone.”

    Without thinking, Casteli takes a sniff himself. French's nose is decades younger than his, and probably a lot keener, but even without that advantage he can just about pick up the odour that his partner's detected. It smells even worse than the time he ended up on stakeout with Howard 'Two-Ton' Tunley, who did nothing for six hours straight but eat fish paste sandwiches and fart. He hasn't been able to stomach fish since. “Shit. What is that?”

    “I dunno.” French moves forward, head turning from side to side as he sniffs at the air again. “I think we should check it out. If it's something rotten, then it's definitely a health hazard.”

    Momentarily, Casteli's tempted to overrule him and get back to the business at hand. But then he catches himself and shakes his head. French is right, after all. A smell like this has no place in a high school—well, apart from the locker room, anyway. And if he can get the school slapped with a health violation, it might make being dragged out here just a little more worthwhile.

    They move through the halls, watching each others' backs. While Winslow's a high school, it's still the biggest shithole this side of whatever squat the Merchants are living in this week. Crudely sprayed Asian ideograms are overlaid by red and black racist symbolism, with the occasional double-barred green 'M' in the corner.

    Casteli catches French's grimace as they pass by a full-length mural, a swastika overlaying a Confederate flag. “Don't let it get to you, kid. Thing these little shits don't understand is that both those flags got their asses kicked by black soldiers and white soldiers fighting side by side for the good old US of A.” He slaps French on the shoulder. “And if they start anything, we'll just hafta show 'em a little historical re-enactment. Got it?”

    French straightens his back slightly. “Got it, sergeant.” He sniffs the air again, and screws his nose up. “Fuck, whatever that shit is, it's horrific.”

    “You're not wrong.” Casteli is now trying to breathe through his mouth only. Whatever's causing the smell is directly ahead. They move up together and look around the corner.

    The source of the smell is very easy to pick out now. There's lockers lining each wall of this particular corridor; all are closed and locked, except for one. That one is open; more specifically, the hinges have been busted and the door's hanging from the locker by its lock. Spilling out of the locker is a sludgy mass of something that, even now, is gradually slumping toward the ground, an inch at a time. Bugs, masses of them, crawl around and over the fetid pile of decomposing … “What the fuck is that?” Casteli immediately regrets speaking, because now he's going to have to inhale.

    “Dunno, sergeant.” French gulps slightly. Casteli hadn't ever imagined it was possible for a black person to go green, but French is a talented young man. “Someone was in there. They went that way.” He puts his hand over his mouth.

    Casteli wrenches his horrified gaze away from the oozing, rotting mass to follow French's pointing finger. The muck has indeed been disturbed in a way that looks like someone waded through it, and there's even a trail leading away, outlined in clear sneaker footprints. Also included in the trail are bits and pieces of stuff that's apparently come from the pile. He thinks he recognises feminine hygiene products, but a glance at French makes him certain the boy's gonna lose his breakfast in the next few minutes if they keep hanging around.

    “C'mere.” He grabs French's sleeve and tows him along the corridor in the direction of the footprints. Once they're out of the worst of the miasma, he stops. “Wait here a moment.”

    “What are you gonna do, sergeant?” French, now looking less nauseated, eyes him curiously as he pulls his phone out.

    “Crime scene photos,” says Casteli grimly. “And to find out what locker number that was. Ten gets you one that whoever owns it is the one that got locked in with that crap. While I'm getting the photos, you call this in. Then we're gonna track down our vic and get a statement.” He bares his teeth in what might be a smile. “Congrats, kid. Looks like you just sniffed out our first real crime of the day.”

    Part Four
     
    Last edited: Dec 6, 2017
  23. Starfox5

    Starfox5 Versed in the lewd.

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    And things get rolling on two ends. Three, if you count the misguided PRT:
     
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  24. Ack

    Ack (Verified Ratbag) (Unverified Great Old One)

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    Amusingly the PRT hasn't yet heard anything about this. Sophia and Emma are still in the bathroom; Sophia's still groggy and Emma isn't about to venture out in either underwear or the crap-covered clothes that Taylor left behind. Even if they fit her, which they really don't. Morrigan took Sophia's phones and Emma's is in her bag, beside her desk.
     
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  25. macdjord

    macdjord Well worn.

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    Wait, then who activated the tracking program on Sophia's phone?
     
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  26. Ack

    Ack (Verified Ratbag) (Unverified Great Old One)

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    The cops entered the school just minutes after Morrigan left. They're a little behind on the timeline to Morrigan. In her timeline, Sophia's just now informed them that her phone's been taken. (The bus timeline is about 5-10 min ahead of the Winslow timeline). Sorry for the confusion.
     
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  27. Visual Pun

    Visual Pun Know what you're doing yet?

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    Or, the tracking program could have gone off automatically when the now activated phone detected its position wasn't at Winslow.

    As laissiez-faire as the authorities may be in dealing with Sophia's probationary Ward status, tracking truancies is something a lazy "social worker" would automate anyway

    Plus, if the location of the tossed PRT phone end up being someplace slightly embarrassing for Sophia (such as outside a Narcotics Anonymous meeting, or an adult bookstore for example) then all the better.
     
    Last edited: Nov 30, 2017
  28. Cailin

    Cailin Our Lady of Escalation

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    Is Taylor going to show up in this story at all? Because she is getting fucked over hard here. She gets shoved in the locker, someone steals her body and memories and then fucks over her life. Because if you think about it from her point of view this is worse than Hijack or Khepri, possibly Valefor depending on how she remembers any of this or not.
     
  29. Ack

    Ack (Verified Ratbag) (Unverified Great Old One)

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    Yeah, she'll be in the story.
     
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  30. Threadmarks: Part Four: Revelations
    Ack

    Ack (Verified Ratbag) (Unverified Great Old One)

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    Part Four: Revelations

    [A/N: This chapter beta-read by Lady Columbine of Mystal.]

    Morrigan

    When the bus pulls up in front of the library, I do a double-take. Not sure what I was expecting, exactly, but this sure as shit wasn't it. It's a big old building, almost fucking stately rather than being a run-down shithole like the school I just walked out of. As I get off the bus, I'm revising my opinion of the city of Brockton Bay upward a bit; there's office buildings all around and almost a feeling of prosperity in the air. That's probably an illusion though; I remember the bus rolling through some pretty crappy neighbourhoods before getting to the downtown area.

    I climb the stairs and go in through the double glass doors. Inside, it's even more fucking impressive. I put my hands on my hips and look around, trying to figure out exactly how much damage an extended firefight in here would cause. What with the marble pillars and the artwork hung everywhere, I decide that the answer is 'way too fucking much'. If it wasn't for the shelves of books, I'd almost be forgiven for thinking I was in a museum, it's that goddamn fancy in here.

    First thing I do is scope out the place for lines of fire and exfil points. I wander from one end of the building to the other, trying not to gawk too much. The last time I was in a place this fancy in the Matrix, I used about a quarter-ton of C-4 to blow it the fuck up. Fucking Agents, they ruin shit for everyone. And of course, I've never been anyplace this fancy outside the Matrix, because that shit hasn't been rebuilt yet.

    Once I've finished with the ground floor, I head upstairs. Almost immediately, I strike gold. There's a row of twenty computers, free for use. Better yet, barely any of them are occupied, because all the good boys and girls are in school, and the adults are earning their illusory electronic dollars. I keep moving, making a mental note of which way I'd have to run if some asshole came through the door with overwhelming force. Sure, there aren't supposed to be Agents here, but I still don't really trust that.

    It doesn't take me too long to get the layout of the place down, and I head back to the computers. Going online in the Matrix is kind of recursive; you know you're in a computer simulation, and the computer you're using is just an emulation in that simulation. If you know what you're doing, you can coax the system to do things it was never designed to do. This is why nearly all Operatives show up as hackers in the Matrix; even before we get the red pill, we're used to warping reality in a myriad of small ways. Of course, once we get the red pill, we can learn to do a whole lot more, but it's a solid start.

    I pick the computer station right at one end from sheer reflex. Less chance of someone looking over my shoulder and scoping out what I'm doing. At the same time, I half-turn my chair so I've got the wall partially covering my back. I don't know that anyone's coming after me, but paranoia is a finely developed survival trait with any Operative. Until I've proven otherwise, I'm not gonna assume that there isn't someone already gunning for me. And even if I do prove it, I'm still not gonna trust it, because that shit can change.

    The computer starts up just a little sluggishly, but that's par for the course. I'm tempted to pull a few hacker moves and go into the programming of this thing to speed it up, but I don't want to draw any more attention than I already am. Don't pay attention to me, I'm just a curious teenager looking up some stuff. So I endure the lag and type in my queries.

    For “Wards”, I get a page of really solid hits. Turns out that Taylor's memories were reasonably accurate; there really is a bunch of government-sponsored kid superheroes in town. Once I figure out how to narrow it down to Brockton Bay, I get a list of names and (masked) faces to go on with. In fact, each of them has a whole portfolio of pictures; turns out that having powers makes you a celebrity. Go figure.

    The list is almost identical to the one I read off of Sophia's phone before I had to ditch it. Triumph is the leader, with a gladiator-style costume topped by a lion-head mask/helmet thing. The description says that he can shout loudly enough to break concrete. I guess that's what grafting weird-ass code culled from a fragment of the Mainframe on to your avatar will do. Must make ordering in a restaurant a bit of a tricky situation.

    I skim through the rest of the names: Aegis, Clockblocker, Gallant, Kid Win, Shadow Stalker, Vista …

    Wait one goddamn moment. Back that shit up.

    I recognise most of those names, especially Clockblocker. If he picked that name for himself, I have to give him kudos. Though I'm not really sure what it's in aid of. I quickly check, and find out that he can freeze shit in time. That's actually pretty damn cool, but I still think that whoever was supposed to be checking names fell down on the job.

    In any case, I'm not after him. There's one name on the list that I didn't see earlier; Shadow Stalker.

    She—it's a teenage girl, looking pretty fit—doesn't have many pics in the profile, like she hasn't been with them for long. But I don't need many pictures to verify my earlier suspicion. Shadow Stalker wears a costume and mask combo that does a good job of covering her hair and skin colour, but she can't change her height and body type, or even the way she stands. That's Sophia Hess, all the fucking way.

    I give the images a good long look, so I'll know her when I see her out and about. There's a full-face mask and a hooded cloak, with what looks like body armour on under the cloak. More of interest are the hand-held crossbows she apparently uses as her weapons of choice. Even though they aren't full-sized, they look like they could do some damage. With Sophia's temper, I'm left wondering how many assholes she's killed already.

    Looking into her background, I get more of an idea of what she's like. Turns out she used to be a vigilante, but then she volunteered to join the Wards. Knowing what she's like face to face and having skimming through her text conversations with Emma, I get the strong impression she didn't so much volunteer as get shanghaied. Whatever she did to get this done to her, it must've been pretty bad. I know this because from the description she's got a classic “you can't touch me” cheat code grafted on to her. Which nails it down for me; there's no other way she could've gotten out of that hold I had her in. But it also means she could slide away any time she felt like it, unless they were keeping pretty close tabs on her.

    Some other hyperlinks are demanding my attention, so I click on them. I start to learn about the Protectorate, which seems to be the adult version of the Wards. I'm hoping that I don't end up clashing with these guys; I'm good, but their avatars have been upgraded with stuff I'll be hard pushed to match off against.

    On the other hand, there's also the Parahuman Response Teams, abbreviated to 'PRT'. That's the next link I click on. I'm not sure what to think about them. On the one hand, I'm pretty sure that they're all baseline human, but on the other … well, with the identical faceless appearance of those helmets, I'm reminded of how Agents all look the same.

    Clicking onward, I find myself directed on to something called the ParaHuman Online boards, PHO for short. I start reading random threads; five minutes in, I pull out my phone and flip it open. There's nobody sitting close enough to listen in, but I remind myself to keep my voice down before I press the button.

    Operator.” For once, Loki isn't coming across like a smug asshole. In fact, he sounds more stunned than anything.

    “Yeah, you getting this?” I keep scrolling down the screen. It's a frank and open discussion of superhuman activities in Brockton Bay and across America, if by 'frank and open discussion' you mean 'terrifying references to inhuman capabilities'. In doing so, they're casually tossing around names that I'm going to have to look up if I'm to make any sense of this.

    Fuck yes, we're getting this.” For once, he's actually being professional. Well, kinda. “Pretty sure we can strip out every thread you click on. Does it look like there's much more?”

    “Uh, yeah.” I click on the Home button, and look at the list of options. There's a lot of them; Brockton Bay, New England, America, International, PRT, Triumvirate, S-Class Threats, Scion. “Want me to hit up local events, or go wider?”

    Well, we're gonna want to get basically everything. This is gold, right here. If anything's gonna give us a picture of the world, it's this.” There's a murmuring sound in the background. “The Captain wants you to look at that sub-forum titled 'S-Class Threats'. We're not sure what it means, but it can't be good.”

    Personally, I'm more interested in the one marked 'Scion', for no better reason than it's right at the end. But what the Captain wants, the Captain gets. Unless I get a better idea, of course. “Sure thing. S-Class Threats it is.” I move the cursor to the link and click it. “Okay … let's see. Slaughterhouse Nine? Sounds like a bad sequel to a fairly dreary novel. Nilbog? Sounds like a bad fantasy novel. Sleeper? What's he gonna do, snore me to death? Endbringers? Wow, ominous much?”

    Captain says to check out the Endbringer thing, whatever that is. Probably our best bet of figuring out what's got the most chance of ending the world so we can stop it.” Loki's voice is tense; I'm not feeling too relaxed right now either.

    “I'm starting to wonder exactly how many ways these guys might end the world,” I say, but I click the link anyway. The subforum that pops up has four options: General, Behemoth, Leviathan and Simurgh. I shrug and click 'Behemoth'.

    And then my mind goes blank, because I've just seen my first Endbringer. The imagery is terrifying, and I say that as someone who's gone toe to toe with Agents. Forty-plus feet tall, dwarfing the people around it, in the air and on the ground. Throwing fire, lightning and even radiation at its opponents, tearing its way through cities like a man wading through a wheatfield. My throat goes dry and closes up altogether as I read the stats attached to the creature, how long it's been active (eighteen years) and the estimated number of casualties it's responsible for. Not thousands. Not tens of thousands. Not even hundreds of thousands. Fucking millions.

    Nausea rises in my throat. Loki's saying something in my ear, but I'm not hearing him. I don't even recognise my own voice as I say the only thing that makes sense.

    Fuuuuck.”

    <><>​

    Winslow
    A Little Earlier


    Casteli hasn't drawn his gun yet, but his hand isn't too far from it. Someone who'd shove a teenager into a locker packed with rotting crap could just be the sort of asshole who'd bring a gun or a knife to school. French isn't so green around the gills any more. He's got his head up and looking around, so there's hope for him yet. The fact that he's following Casteli's lead without argument is another point in his favour.

    The trail of stinking debris, along with the slimy footprints, leads them to a classroom door, which is wide open. Voices come from within. Casteli catches French's eye and points at where the footprints also leave the classroom, heading off down the corridor. “Looks like our vic came and went,” he says quietly.

    “So what are we waiting for?” French asks. He sounds eager, which is kind of excusable, but Casteli knows better.

    “First off, we find out what happened in there,” he says. “Then we go looking for the vic. They're obviously up and able to walk. Also, probably traumatised. So we don't go running after them. And we don't go anywhere alone in Winslow. So stick with me.”

    He moves forward and steps into the doorway, coming face to face with a familiar figure. He's met this woman before. Principal Blackwell has never really impressed him much, but she is the ranking authority in Winslow. Behind her stands one of the teachers; a Mr Gladly. Gladly has managed to impress Casteli even less.

    “Oh, good, you're here,” Blackwell says. “I demand you arrest her at once!” Her voice is a little sharp, a little high-pitched, and would probably go through the human skull like a bandsaw after a Friday night bender.

    Casteli frowns. “Good morning, Principal Blackwell,” he says in an attempt to establish a certain level of politeness. “Who do you want us to arrest? And on what charge, exactly?” He knows what charge he wants to arrest someone on, but who that someone is, he's not sure yet.

    Blackwell takes a deep breath. “Her name is Taylor Hebert. She barged in here after class started, assaulted several of my students, then dragged Emma Barnes from the classroom by force.”

    That changes everything. “Is anyone here hurt?” he asks crisply. He waits a bare second for her head-shake, then points into the classroom. “Wait here. We'll be back.”

    With French at his side, he starts off down the hallway, moving at a steady jog. The footprints are fainter now, but still quite visible, and occasionally accompanied by a horrid blackened thing. As they take the first flight of stairs upward, French clears his throat. “Uh, sergeant, why are we in a hurry now when we weren't before?”

    “Because we didn't know the vic had a hostage,” Casteli says, taking the steps two at a time. “And dollars to doughnuts this Barnes girl has something to do with the locker. Or the Herbert girl thinks she does. Either way, we've got to stop her before she does something she'll regret.”

    “I think she said Hebert,” French says, between puffs. “Not Herbert.”

    Casteli wants to say who the fuck cares? but he doesn't, because it would be a dick move to swear at French for picking up on a detail he missed. “Good catch,” he says shortly. They come out at the top of the stairs, and he squints to pick up the trail again. It's not hard; the footprints lead directly to a girls' bathroom, not far away. Raised voices are audible from within, though he can't make out the words.

    “Call this in,” he says quietly. “Gonna see what I can hear.” He turns down his radio so he won't be distracted as he eases closer to the bathroom door. Over his shoulder he can hear French murmuring on the radio, but he's concentrating on hearing what's going on inside.

    The voices, as far as he can make out, are female and on the young side, but he can't tell more than that. Fits with what they told us. Dollars to doughnuts that's the Hebert girl and the Barnes girl. While there's definitely an argument going on, he can't make out more than a word here or there, and it's not enough to establish context. But it's definitely two voices and there's no screaming or noises of pain, so nobody's hurt yet. He hopes.

    French moves up beside him. “They wanted to know if the Hebert girl's armed. I said not as far as we know.”

    Casteli nods. “Yeah. If she had been, Blackwell'd be demanding we shoot her on sight. Still, no sense in taking chances. If I draw my taser, you draw yours. If I draw my gun, you draw yours. If I shoot, you shoot. You do not do any of that unless I do it first. I'll go left, you go right. Got it?”

    He senses rather than sees the return nod. “Got it, sergeant.”

    “Good.” Taking a deep breath, he steps forward to the bathroom door. “BBPD!” he yells. “Police officers! We are coming in! Make no hostile moves!” With his left hand, he slaps the outer door open, then wrenches at the inner door. The instant it's open, he lunges through and moves to the left, clearing the way for French.

    Two teenage girls, wearing just underwear, spin around from what looks like a heated discussion to stare at them.

    <><>​

    A Couple of Minutes Later

    Casteli wriggles his pinky in his ear again. The black girl never made a sound when he burst in with French on his heels, but the redhead turned out to have a really effective screaming voice. This was only amplified by the tiled walls; his ears are still ringing. The redhead now has his jacket draped around her for modesty, while French has given the black girl his own jacket.

    “I don't understand why we can't take this elsewhere,” Principal Blackwell grumbles. It's obvious she's never been in this bathroom, and the smell of the pile of soiled clothing isn't helping.

    “This is a crime scene,” Casteli says for the third time. “We need to find out what happened here. Now, you're certain that neither of these girls is Taylor Hebert?” He brushes his hand over his vest to make sure his recorder is running.

    “I'm certain,” Blackwell informs him frigidly. “That is Emma Barnes. Her father's a lawyer. Sophia Hess is one of our track stars.” She gives Casteli a hard stare. “Are they under arrest?”

    Casteli shakes his head. “No. But as soon as we can walk through the timeline here, we can move things along. So, Miss Barnes. You came in here with Taylor Hebert?”

    Emma turns at his prompting and nods. “Yes,” she says thickly. Her nose is swollen and red, and there's a bump on her forehead; plugs of paper adorn her nostrils. “She dook her clothes off.”

    “That's those clothes there, right?” asks Casteli, pointing at the smelly pile. “Why do you think she did that?”

    “Yes, that's themb,” she confirms. “She bade be clead themb id the singk.”

    “She made you clean them in the sink?” he asks. When she nods, he goes on. “What happened then?”

    “Sophia cambe id,” she says. “Daylor beat her ub add stole her bands.”

    Casteli considers that. “Sophia came in,” he hazards. “Taylor beat her up and stole her pants, is that right?”

    Emma's just nodding when Sophia slaps her hands to her hips through the overhanging jacket. “Oh, shid!” the black girl blurts. “Bish took by phodes!” She turns to Blackwell. “I deed to call mby social worker.”

    “I'll do that for you,” Blackwell says hurriedly, reaching into her handbag and pulling out her phone.

    Casteli watches curiously as she taps a number into the phone without even consulting with Sophia. Is it just me, or does she have that number memorised? Putting the phone to her ear, Blackwell turns away and begins to speak under her breath, which seems to bear out his supposition. He wonders just how often Blackwell's had to call that number over the last year. Though it's nice to see a teacher so willing to step up for her students.

    “So what happened then, Miss Barnes?” French asks.

    “She mbade mbe give her mby boots add blouse add she left,” Emma says simply. “But she was actig weird. Like she did'd really doe mbe. Cold add mbead.” She points at her face. “She broke mby dose add Sophia's doo.”

    If I got locked into a locker with crap like that, I'd want to break someone's nose too, Casteli thinks. I wouldn't even really blame her for making Emma give her the boots and blouse, if Emma was the one to shut her in there. Not that that changes matters, of course. Assault and battery is still a crime, as is theft.

    “Well, that seems to cover the situation here,” he says. “Let's get you downstairs so you can wait for your parents.” He really should get a description of the stolen clothing, he knows, but he just can't face trying to decipher any more of Emma's nasal mumble right now.

    <><>​

    PRT Building ENE
    Deputy Director Renick's Office


    “Deputy Director Renick speaking.”

    Deputy Director, this is Kirsten Bright.”

    Renick frowns at the phone. “That's nice, Ms Bright, but it doesn't tell me why you're calling me.”

    Oh, uh, I'm Shadow Stalker's PRT liaison?” The Bright woman sounds a little flustered. “I've got instructions to call if there's ever anything I can't handle?”

    Shadow Stalker. Renick's frown deepens. She's not popular among her fellow Wards, but at least she doesn't cause problems at school. “Understood,” he says bluntly. “But what are you calling me about?”

    I just got a call from Blackwell at Winslow,” Bright goes on. “Someone beat up Shadow Stalker, knocked her out and took her Wards phone.”

    He sits bolt upright in his chair. “Status of Shadow Stalker?” he asks crisply.

    Alive and conscious,” reports Bright. “She's got a broken nose, though.”

    Turning toward his computer, Renick puts the phone on speaker and starts typing. “Any indication as to whether this was an attack on the Wards, or on her personally?”

    There was nothing to indicate that it was about her secret identity,” Bright says. Which doesn't really mean anything, as he's fully aware. “A friend of hers was being assaulted and she went to their aid. She was apparently taken by surprise and knocked out. While she was unconscious, her phone was stolen. The thief has apparently left Winslow.”

    “Call Blackwell back,” Renick orders. “Get her to put Shadow Stalker on the phone and get a full report from her, broken nose or no broken nose. Call me back when you have more.” The press of a button ends the call.

    He clicks open a window, revealing a menu titled 'Wards Phones'. Scrolling down the list—it's arranged alphabetically, which puts Shadow Stalker down toward the bottom—he locates the one he wants and clicks on it. Immediately, a second menu pops up. From it, he selects 'Activate Tracker'. A moment later, a map unfolds on the screen. On it, a red dot pops up, crawling south from Winslow. Reaching over to his phone, Renick hits a speed-dial number.

    Operations, Sergeant Lamont speaking.”

    “This is the Deputy Director.” He knows that saying so is probably unnecessary; they've probably got his number memorised. But he still does it anyway. “We've got a ten-eighty-three. The tracking beacon has been activated. I'll be sending the frequency through shortly. I'm going to need a plainclothes detail to track it down discreetly.”

    Copy that, sir. We'll get right on it.”

    Renick sighs and puts the phone down, then hits the key to send the information to the Ops desk. Then he picks the phone up again. The Director's going to want to know about this.

    He's not looking forward to the conversation.

    Part Five
     
    Last edited: Dec 8, 2017
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