Window of Opportunity


Window of Opportunity


By: Benjamin



"I'm having doubts," Jess whispered.

"Don't worry, there's like a 95 percent chance that this'll work," Dave answered with a wink.

"There is an 80 percent chance that this will succeed." Carl’s mechanical voice attempted to whisper from under Dave's sleeve. 

Jess's eyes went wide. "Oh my God. We're going to die." Jess wrapped her arms around herself and tried to focus on not throwing up. After spending nearly a month in the outland, chased by monsters and bounty hunters, she and Dave had finally arrived at Mechanicsburg. They stood in a line that stretched nearly a mile long. Thousands of people waited to enter the seed. There was a general atmosphere of optimism and hope. Most people in the line were tourists or immigrants who had never seen a seed before. In their minds, the seeds were safe. Those who lived within had good jobs. Outlanders heard stories about how people living in the seeds threw away better food than most those outside ate at Christmas.

Jessica remembered the feeling. The first time she'd seen the walls and towers of Bastion her eyes had lit up. In those days, she couldn't believe how lucky she had been. The rose-tinted glasses of her teenage years had been removed. As the line inched toward the gate, she could think only of the monster that had confronted her in Eden Tower.

"I'm not sure what Dave told you," the gravelly voice echoed in her mind. "But I hope it was worth it."

She looked at her companion. In truth, Dave hadn't told her much of anything. To this day she still knew very little about him. She wondered how he could be so calm.

Dave raised an eyebrow when he noticed her staring. "We're not going to die."

Jess failed to look reassured.

"Seriously,” he continued. “Carl's overestimating how perceptive the average person is. The disguises will work."

Dave had insisted that they alter their appearances since Eden had issued press releases with their images. Jess and Dave were labelled as anti-Eden terrorists. They were armed and dangerous, not to be approached by citizens. If anyone sighted these criminals they should inform the authorities immediately. In response, Dave had grown a beard. His formerly short, straight hair had grown shaggy. Dave had acquired a long brown coat, black button down shirt and worn tan trousers. The combined effect made him look much older than his picture. Jess had to admit that his transformation was quite impressive. In fact, she was beginning to question just how old Dave actually was. 

For her part, Jess had cut her long blonde hair and dyed it black. She also worse glasses at Dave's insistence. "It won't fool a computer," he'd said, "but even your own mother would have to look twice." Jess had also worn simple clothing designed to hide her shape. Dave had pointed out, much to Jess's embarrassment, that Eden had posted a very flattering picture of her. Even Carl, who was embodied in the case of a standard, off-the-shelf wrist computer had been painted red. Dave didn't want him to feel left out. 

The checkpoint was within sight now. Jess's heart was pounding. In the outland they'd fought for their lives on more than one occasion, but this was Eden. A quick death in the Outland may have been better than what awaited them if they were discovered. Dave took her hand and winked. As they approached the check in, Dave hoisted their luggage onto a conveyor belt. A border control agent sat behind a monitor on the opposite side of the belt. Dave rested his left hand on the machine. 

"Name," The agent asked in a disinterested tone. Though he appeared to be in his early 30's, he was almost entirely bald. He wore a jacket over his shirt and tie. The checkpoint was basically an open garage within the enormous gates of Mechanicsburg. 

"John Francis Donaghy," Dave replied.

The man typed it in. Dave's hand flexed slightly as Carl got to work displaying falsified records on the agent's screen. Jess held her breath.

"Purpose of visit?"

Dave smiled, "Business."

Jess saw Dave's hand tense as the agent looked down at the baggage scanner.

"I'm going to have ask you to come with me." The words might as well have been a kick to the stomach. Jess couldn't breathe. 

"Is there are problem?" Dave asked politely. 

"Don't make me repeat myself, sir." The agent was reaching for a communication device. Jess contemplated running. It was Dave's stupid idea to try to sneak weapons into the city. She knew Carl wasn't up to the task of tricking the scanner. If she ran now she might be able to escape in the confusion.

Dave's hand moved faster than the agents. Dave rested a finger on the communication device before the agent could reach it. The agent's eye's widened as he looked up at Dave. Jess couldn't help but notice Dave's finger twitch as Carl set to work on the communications device. Dave still smiled, but the expression no longer reached his eyes. 

The agent reached towards his belt. "Sir, step-"

Dave interrupted, "As I said before. I'm here on business. I'm a businessman, you see. I think maybe you and I have gotten off on the wrong foot. Before we do anything we can't take back let me show you my papers." Dave's smile had turned predatory. He reached into his coat pocket. Jess feared the agent would shoot, but he only stared at Dave dumbfounded. Dave moved like an experienced thief. In one simple motion he rested a stack of bank notes next to the comm device, carefully out of view of the crowd behind them. 

"Now, we can go with you, if you want. I can help you come to a much deeper understanding of exactly what line of work I'm in. I don't think that would be much fun for either of us, though." Dave dropped the smile for the first time since the exchange began. "Or you just let us go and have yourself a good time."

For a moment Jess thought they were doomed. Dave never flinched. The agent moved the money under the table and pressed a button. Their baggage was cleared and they were free to proceed on into the seed. Dave's smile returned. "You have a good day, sir." 

The agent didn't reply. 

The pair walked in silence for a time. Jess had never been to another seed before. She'd assumed that they would all be more-or-less like Bastion. In school she'd been taught that all seeds were comprised of a mega-city sprawling for hundreds of miles. Beneath the city lay the biodome where all food, water, and when necessary, oxygen were manufactured. Most importantly at the heart of each seed, between the city streets and above the biodome's ultraviolet lights, lay the shield generator. She knew that some seeds had walls. Most seeds were created from the remnants of old-world cities and towns that survivors of the catastrophe had been able to fortify and hold. She'd always pictured that Mechanicsburg would just be Bastion with different shaped buildings, but she was very wrong. The entire architecture was different. It was as if this city was part of an entirely different civilization. They had arrived in a strip lined with restaurants, bars, coffee shops and all manner of storefronts. The dark steel and glass structures of Bastion had been replaced by a simpler off-white concrete. There were a few large office buildings interspersed between the shops, but the buildings did not reach nearly as high as those in Bastion. Jess could make out the smokestacks of Mechanicsburg's famous factory district in the distance. Dave guided Jess down several streets to a large building with enormous concrete steps. To Jess's amazement the building had a full courtyard with various trees and flowers. Autumn was in full swing now. Many of the leaves had already fallen. Several people walked the grounds, enjoying the scenery. Dave eventually found a tree he liked dropped their luggage to the side and sat down against it with a yawn. Jess stood and watched.

"Hey Carl," Dave said.

"Yes David," A mechanical voice answered.

"The fuck was that?" Dave asked bluntly. 

 "I was not able to full interface with the machine. I did successfully scramble most of the image." Carl stated defensively. 

Dave lit a cigarette and inhaled deeply. "You said you could do this." 

"I thought that I could," Carl replied. 

Dave exhaled a cloud of smoke. "You need to work on that probability algorithm."

"Shouldn't we be running," Jess asked. "What if that guy changes his mind and turns us in?" 

Dave shook his head. "He won't. You think we're the first arms dealers that guys seen? Hell, we probably weren't the only ones in that line. Mechanicsburg never really got on board with Eden's weapons ban. I mean, sure they pay lip service to it, but Phoenix themselves have been illegally manufacturing fire arms for years. Anyway, focus on the bright side. The disguises worked. If he'd figured out who we were, no amount of money in the world would have saved us."

Jess frowned. "And then what, would you have 'showed him exactly what line of work you were in.' Seriously, was that supposed to be scary?" 

"I'll have you know that I can be quite the rough customer. Remember that time I killed a salamander?" 

Jess sat down next to Dave, nearly shoving him off the tree. "killed the salamander. You just ran around and got your ass kicked."

"Not how I choose to remember it," Dave said with a shrug. 

"So what, we're arms dealers now?" Jess asked.

Dave closed his eyes and folded his arms behind his head. "I don't know. You want to?"

"You seriously don't have a plan?"

Dave gestured to the area around them. "This was the plan."

Before Jess could reply two security guards approached them. "Excuse me, sir." Jess's heart leaped into her throat. She looked towards the dufflebag and the weapons. Dave opened his eyes slowly. 

"You can't smoke here, sir." 

Dave rolled his eyes and in one long draw, finished the cigarette and flicked it away. The security guards gave Dave a hard look, but ultimately walked away. Dave stood up and grabbed the bag. "New plan," he said. "I need coffee." 


After a few minutes of walking the group stopped at one of the cities many cafes. Dave had selected one of the smaller restaurants. It seemed to be independently owned. The floors were hard wood and the whole building smelled of roasted coffee beans. Gentle acoustic guitar music played in the background. There were a few tables, but most of the seating was made up of couches and leather chairs. A television set played silently in one corner. 

Jess ordered a vanilla latte with whipped cream. Dave ordered a double Americano and paid by swiping his phone. Being in a seed where electronic payment was common place, Carl would be able to acquire all the funding they would ever need. Their days of knocking over ATMs and running from the authorities may just be over. If they kept a low profile they would be able to live out the rest of their days in relative comfort. To Jess's surprise the thought didn't fill her with relief. She'd secretly hoped that Dave had another adventure planned. Dave had been conspicuously silent for the last few minutes.

Jess followed his gaze to the television set. Dave was staring pretty intently at a news broadcast about a terrorist attack in Tidal Pool. 

"Looks like Eden has a bigger problem than us at the moment. That's good right?" Jess said, attempting to make conversation.

"It's interesting." He replied.

Jess waited, expecting Dave to go on. He only stared silently at the television set. It occurred to her that she had never had a hard time getting Dave to speak before. In fact, in the weeks she'd known him, getting him to shut up had been real trick. "Care to expand on that," she asked impatiently.  

Dave finally turned his gaze from the screen. He gave Jess an appraising look. "Why do you think Eden bothered investing all the time and resources to turn Tidal Pool into a seed in the first place?" 

"They wanted to establish a forward base for the Reclamation Project. It's all part of their 'Second Manifest Destiny' campaign. 'Take back the west. Reclaim the world!'" Jess quoted with mock enthusiasm. 

"Why west," Dave asked.

Carl answered, his volume lowered to avoid attracting attention. "To discover the source of The Catastrophe."

Dave approved. "Salamanders are nothing compared to the things you'll find west of Tidal Pool. As you've seen, Eden is in the monster business. Seed building isn't just something they do out of the goodness of their hearts. It's a huge investment, and they expect a return."

"Makes sense," Jess said while sipping her latte.

"So why aren't they trying harder to protect it," Dave asked as much to himself as to his companions. 

Jess looked at back at the news report. The terrorists had struck a pretty serious blow. Several members of Eden's security team and even the governor of Tidal Pool had been killed. "It seems like they're trying to me. We're living proof that Eden isn't as all-powerful as they claim to be." 

For the first time since arriving in Mechanicsburg, Dave smiled. "Speaking of, did you happen to see who they appointed to head up the security force in Tidal Pool?" 

Jess shook her head. Dave rolled up his sleeve to reveal Carl's screen. "Carl would you look up the current head of Eden's operations in Tidal Pool?" The image that came on Carl's screen took Jess's breath away. She would never forget that face. 

Dave watched Jess's reaction. "His name is Clarence Townsend. The picture is from a press conference they held shortly after his recovery. He's a fast healer. Though, now that I look closely, I do think I detect a few scars." Dave said with a smile. "The article doesn't mention that he failed to actually apprehend the terrorists or to retrieve the weapon that they stole. It also doesn’t mention that he had one of the terrorists in custody and lost her. Now he finds himself in charge of Tidal Pool. Why send a man who couldn't catch a 23-year-old girl, who has no espionage or combat training, to stabilize a region swarming with career criminals? For that matter, this is Eden we're talking about. It's strange that they're allowing a narrative that focuses on the success of the terrorists to be broadcast."

Dave paused for a moment. "I think it's worth investigating." He said seriously. 

Jess stared stunned. "You're insane," she finally managed to stammer.

 "It's like you said, we're living proof that Eden isn't all-powerful. I think there may be an opportunity in Tidal Pool." 

Jess lowered her voice to a whisper. "You're seriously talking about going after Eden again? Seriously? Just because you saw some news report?" 

"Carl and I have been analyzing the data we grabbed from the outposts that we hit on the way here. From what Carl has been able to decrypt Eden reclamation activities have definitely ramped up in the last 2 years. It also appears that the terrorist attacks have been relatively low for the bulk of this activity. Such a large, well-coordinated, attack by rebel forces now is interesting." 

It was Carl's turn to speak up. Jess wondered if they'd rehearsed this pitch. "There are several data points which suggest that Eden may have a hidden agenda in the western territories. We have several theories as to what they may be planning, but so far we have not encountered a data store with sufficient information to come to a solid conclusion." 

"Why should we care about any of this?" Jess asked, honestly curious to know the answer.

"From what we've been able to gather, the rebel attacks coincide with Eden's scheduled completion of the shield generator. It would seem that the rebels are trying to take control of the seed." Dave explained.

"It is in our best interest to ensure that the rebels are successful." Carl concluded. 

Jess gestured toward the television. "They're winning. I don’t think they need our help." 

Dave shook his head. "Something more is going on here."

Jess gave Dave a hard look. "Who are you?" She asked pointedly. 

"I'm not sure-" he started. 

Jess cut him off. "I'm not a complete idiot, Dave. That thing, Townsend or whatever his name was, he knew you. Why were you in the lab that night?" 


Dave knew the question would come sooner or later. He was surprised it had taken this long. Despite anticipating the question, he wasn't sure how to answer. He looked back down at his coffee. "You're right, I have some history with Eden. I like to keep tabs on them. Security at a proper Eden facility is very tight. The facility at Bastion University was lax by comparison. I figured it was my best shot at finding out what sort of projects Eden was interested in these days.”

He took a sip of his coffee. “I used to do a little bit of business analytics work for Eden once upon a time. I left under less than ideal circumstances and decided it would be best to lay low for a while."

Jess stared. "Analytics? What does that even mean?" Her voice was growing a little too loud. "How did you even manage to qu-" Dave silenced Jess with a swift kick to the shin. 

"Let's just say I know more about Eden's business plan than most." Dave said in a hushed whisper. He shook his head. "Most people think that Eden is a greedy corporation that wants to control every aspect of our lives for their own financial benefit."

"Are you saying that's not true?" Jess asked. 

"Eden has so much more ambition than that." Dave sighed. What he said next was as much for himself as it was for Jess. "If there's a chance here to stop them, or even slow them down, I have to take it."

Jess still wasn't convinced. She wanted him to go into more detail. He couldn't really blame her. Dave wouldn't have been satisfied with the answer either, but some things have to be earned. As much as Jess had been through, and as handy as she was with a gun, Dave still wasn't entirely convinced she was ready for what came next. He glanced at the time on Carl's display.

"I'm going to check out what's going on in Tidal Pool. If you don't want to join me, I understand. You can keep Carl and lay low here." Dave said. 

"What?" Jess and Carl said in unison. Dave wasn't sure if Carl was capable of intonation, but thought he detected some anger and panic in the mechanical voice. They both began talking at once, loudly enough to turn a few heads in the cafe. Dave's eyes widened as he watched the onslaught. 

"You turn my life upside down and then you-" a high-pitched shriek began.

"What do you mean 'keep?' I will not be left with her. This is unacceptable" the sound of being yelled at by a speaker phone reminded Dave of his Eden days.

"Who the fuck do you think you are wrist watch? I built you!" 

"You played a minor role in the development of my neuro linguistic-"

Dave interrupted, "Yeah, yeah shut up, Carl." Dave gestured to the people in the cafe trying hard not to make eye contact. "Let's all calm down a bit."

A barely audible string of syllables escaped from Carl's speaker. To Dave's ears it sounded like "Barely even an intern..."

Jess had reluctantly returned to a normal speaking voice. "Did he just mumble angrily at me," she asked, voice filled with accusation.

"I believe he did." Dave replied.

"That's actually a pretty huge achievement for his language development algorithm." She sounded proud in spite of herself. Dave resisted the urge to shake his head. 

"So you're in?" As Dave asked the question he saw anxiety written all over her face. He felt a twinge of guilt. She obviously wanted to stay in Mechanicsburg, but her fear of being left alone was greater.

"I'm in." She said.

"Good, cause the lunch rush will be starting soon, and I'm hoping for a large turn out." Dave motioned in the direction of the cafe's front window. Jess’s jaw dropped. He smiled a little. Just across the street was one of Mechanicsburg's larger buildings. A simple white plaque sat encased in glass. Written on it were the words "Eden Industries" with a large fruit bearing tree punctuating the name. It was one of Eden's older logos. Dave had always thought the name "Eden" was a stupid idea and had argued on several occasions that the tree in the logo only served to compound it's stupidity. What was it even supposed to mean? The apple tree wasn't exactly celebrated in the creation myth. Might as well have damn snake be the company mascot. Public relations had never been Eden's strong suit, David decided.

 "What are you going to do?" Jess asked. Her voice was pleading, as if begging him not to do anything stupid. 

It didn't take long for the shop to fill with well-dressed patrons. Dave and Jess both ordered lunch, but while Dave was happily devouring sandwiches he couldn't help but notice Jess hadn’t eaten a thing. Dave glanced at Carl's monitor. Carl displayed a winking emoticon to signal that he was getting plenty of information. Dave would typically need to spend weeks or even months casing a target before he could collect enough information to attempt an intrusion. Carl was revolutionizing that process. He was pulling data from every mobile device and computer connected to the cafe's wireless network. Dave listened closely to the conversation while pretending to read something on his phone. It was the usual work gossip. 

"I don't know how they justify giving that idiot a 1 rating when he doesn't even-" Dave tuned out, there wasn't much he could use there.

"There's no way they're not fucking. He's in her office every other night at 6 like clockwork. The door locks and the blinds shut. Who bothers locking their office door after quitting time?" Dave already knew what the traditional office hours were, but he agreed. They were definitely fucking. 

It went on like that for most of the lunch rush. Dave hoped Carl had gotten something more usable. The group left the cafe and Dave led the way to a nearby hotel. As they entered the lobby Dave noticed Jess's jaw drop. This was one of the hotels that Eden typically used for travelers to the Mechanicsburg office. The lobby was the size of a small warehouse, but it was lavishly decorated and filled with comfortable furniture. The check-in counter was ornately styled and crowned with a marble top. Rather than making his way to the check in counter, Dave motioned to a complimentary refreshment table that had been laid out in the corner of the room. He poured himself another cup of coffee and gestured for Jess to do the same.

"How much caffeine do you consume in a day?" she asked. 

"Enough." He replied defensively. "Just take a cup, we'll sit down and pretend to have a conversation before we check in. I have an idea, but I'm going to need some time. I don't want to look suspicious." 

Jess obliged, but took tea instead of coffee. Dave shook his head. She was young.

Once they were seated Dave raised Carl's screen to his face. "Can you connect to the hotel's computer system through the wi-fi?" 

"Already accomplished." Carl answered with a hint of pride. 

"Are you able to create a reservation in their system?" 

"I am." Carl replied.

"Excellent, find an available room, something nice. Create a reservation for John McClane, set the check-in time one hour from now. If you can, adjust the timestamp on the record's creation to last week." 

Carl's screen flashed off for a few moments then a mechanical voice declared "done!"

Dave smiled. "Excellent. Let's go." Dave led the group to the immaculate marble counter, and rested his coffee cup on it. The man behind the counter, whose name tag read “Chad” eyed the cup with annoyance. 

"How may I help you?" Chad asked with forced enthusiasm.

"We have a room booked under the name McClane." Dave watched the man start typing.

"Says here your check-in isn't for another hour. The room isn't ready yet. You could have a seat in the lobby, refreshments are available at the-" 

Dave held up a hand to cut the man off. It was a struggle not to laugh at the irritation Chad was showing. It occurred to Dave that he had never met a "Chad" who he liked. What was it short for, Chadwick? Sounded like he should be out playing lacrosse with Thaddeus and Holden. "Our flight in from Aegis arrived early, by about 3 hours if you can believe that. Who ever heard of a flight arriving early, am I right, Chad?" Dave didn't give Chad time to answer. "Anyway my lady friend and I are a bit exhausted, and were wondering if we might be able to check in now. As long as the room is passable we won't mind at all." Dave slid a 50 dollar bill across the counter. Chad accepted the bill and punched a few more keys. He reached under the desk and handed Dave two black plastic cards. 

"Room 1408." Chad said. 

"Ooh ominous," Dave replied.

"I'm sorry?" Chad asked, genuinely confused. 

Dave shook his head. "Don't worry about it. King adaptations were always hit or miss." He left Chad with a confused look on his face.

Once they were safely in the elevator Jess spoke. "Lady friend?" She asked derisively. 

Dave feigned a wounded expression. "Well, you're a lady, and I considered us to be friends." 

"Whatever," she said, "what was all that about with the late check in?" 

Dave shrugged. "Well it might have been overkill but we needed to spend some time in the lobby to get a reservation hacked. I figured it might look a little suspicious for us to kill time in the lobby if our check-in was right now. The later time made our activity a little less suspicious."

Jess thought about it. "Clever," she finally allowed. 

Once inside the hotel room Jess collapsed on the bed. To Dave's surprise she fell asleep almost immediately, on top of the blankets. He couldn't help feeling another twinge of guilt. The stress of all this was getting to her.

Dave set their bag down and took out a data pad. He removed Carl from his wrist and set him on the desk, then surveyed the room. A king-sized bed was the center piece of the room. Several blankets and more pillows than were strictly necessary covered the bed. There were end tables on either side of the bed. Each had a lamp, one had a small communications dock and some hotel stationary. Facing the window was the simple wooden desk he'd set Carl on. The view of the street below was actually very impressive. Directly in front of the bed was a large monitor set on a chest of drawers. The bathroom was decorated with similar marble to the counters downstairs and even had a hot tub. Dave had certainly had worse bases of operation. His old dorm room at Bastion University came to mind. 

Dave returned to the data pad. Carl had several streams of information flowing across the screen. 

"What have we got?" Dave asked. Carl displayed several e-mails encouraging employees not to travel west of Terminus.

Carl displayed one e-mail larger than all the others.

"From: Zachary Birchwood <This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.>
To: Stephen Pruitt<This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.>

FWD: Re: Concerns About Tpool Situation

Man can you believe this shit? I wish I could say that this was just another example of Eden's evil corporate bullshit, but this isn't even evil. It's just stupid. We're losing millions on this, fuck, billions. Not to mention the human cost. 

I've brought up your concerns about the tpool shield generator at the last review. Upper management does not feel that a greater security presence will bring the situation under control. As it stands the rebels have the area completely surrounded. At this point in time, committing more forces would be irresponsible and would not honor our commitment to the safety and wellbeing of our people.  If the rebels are able to secure the shield generator we will fall back on the contingency measures to remedy the situation. 

I know this isn't the answer you were hoping for. I'm sorry, but this comes from on high. My advice: Let. It. Go."

Dave rubbed his jaw. "Tidal Pool is a huge area. It's extremely rural with several abandoned tunnels and other points of ingress. Not to mention Eden has total air superiority. It should be an easy win for Eden." He expected that Carl had already reached a similar conclusion. "Did you happen to find anything about the contingency measures?" Dave inquired.

"Negative. It sounds like Eden has full confidence in these measures though." 

"With Eden, that could be almost anything. We need more. I find it hard to believe that Eden is withholding reinforcements out of fear of losing a few lives. The shield generator is worth an entire battalion of security personnel and all their equipment ten times over."

"I have found several other documents that would seem to confirm that Eden is withholding reinforcements. There are travel advisories restricting Eden personnel from traveling even as far west as Terminus. There are also instances of troops who had orders to deploy to Tidal Pool, but the orders were unexpectedly cancelled without explanation. These documents contain deliberate misdirection and falsehood. I believe that Eden’s employees are as confused as we are." Carl explained.

"Well, obviously." Dave was surprised at Carl's naivety. "Knowledge is power. Competition within Eden is intense, to put it mildly. The success of an operation involving an asset like a shield generator will make or break careers."

"What was it that broke your career with Eden?"

"I left to pursue personal projects." Dave replied coldly.


Jess was alone in her parent’s farmhouse. She wasn’t sure how she knew that she was alone. She just felt it. Pale grey light filtered in through the windows. Wind slammed the shutters against the house. A storm was coming. The clouds must have appeared suddenly as there wasn’t a light on in the entire house. Jess was lying in a bed looking out of the window. The smell of summer filled the air. She shook her head. She wasn't fully awake yet. She stood up. Her bare feet touched down on the hardwood floor. Lightning flashed in the distance, followed several seconds later by the roar of thunder. Jess should secure the shudders and make sure all of the windows were closed. It was bound to start pouring any second. As she reached out of the window, hail bounced off of her hand. In the distance a city skyline loomed large. The storm seemed to originate from that direction. She watched with amazement as a bolt of purple lightning sliced through the sky and struck the city's tallest tower. The thunder was conspicuously absent. Jess thought that she felt the wind start to pick up and she instinctively braced herself. 

She awoke with a start and a gasp. Dave wheeled around in his chair. "Everything ok," he asked.

She ran a hand through her hair. She knew it must look terrible. "What? How long was I out," she asked, looking past Dave and out into the night sky. Memories of checking into the hotel were slowly returning to her. 

"6 or 7 hours," Dave replied.

Jess saw Carl and the datapad on the desk. Scattered between them were several pages of hotel stationary filled with notes. 

"So what's the plan to get us almost killed this time," she asked. 

Dave smiled, "well the good news is that you and Carl will get to remain safe in the hotel room while I sneak into Eden."

"You're going in alone? That seems like a colossally stupid idea."

Dave shook his head. She recognized the expression on his face and rolled her eyes. It was what she had started calling his 'professor face.' Dave would admit that he loved the sound of his own voice, but she was fairly certain he didn't realize how often he treated her like she was his student or apprentice. She wasn't sure exactly how old Dave was but he couldn't have been more than a few years her senior. Though somehow in that short time he had come to work for Eden and quit. There was always more going on with Dave than he let on. She didn't like the secrets. 

Dave was oblivious to Jess's annoyance, as usual. He proceeded to explain his plan. "They have a scanner at the door. It's meant to detect any weapons, but it could very easily be reprogrammed to scan for Carl as well. We can probably assume that Eden has already pushed an update." 

Jess interrupted. "Can't Carl just program the scanner to not find him."

Dave looked at Carl. "We thought about that, but Carl’s hacking has been pretty spotty especially when it comes to Eden tech. This isn't like the bases in the outlands. We can’t just do a smash and grab.  We need to get in and out without Eden ever knowing we were there."

Jess interrupted again. "You'll be seen by, literally, a thousand cameras. They could easily be patched into a facial recognition system and database of suspicious individuals. You are suspicious individual number one. Even if you get through the scanners they'll still know you're there."

Dave nodded sagely. "You're learning well my young padawan." 

"I don't know what that means. I don't understand half of the things you reference." Jess said with exasperation. 

"This is where you and Carl come in. Your job, tomorrow, is to acquire and build a small device. He can probably explain it better." 

Carl spoke up. "We need to build a small etheric transmitter. It should be undetectable by normal radio wave communication. This device will create waves in the ambient ether similar to a radio signal. I will be able to interpret them and send a signal back. We will fit it inside a small memory storage device with an enhanced battery to allow for electrical manipulation. Dave will plug this device into the machinery on site and I will be able to manipulate it remotely. The parts will be easy to acquire. Using this same device I should be able to create a minor etheric disturbance around Dave. It wouldn't be noticeable to a human observer but it will throw off a small number of pixels that the camera records. It will create an optical illusion for the camera that makes Dave's face seem as if it belongs to another person." 

The idea actually intrigued Jess. It would be nice to do something that leveraged her computer skills rather than her sharp shooting skills for a change. Working with Carl rather than on Carl would also be an interesting experience. She still didn't like that Dave was going in alone, but she doubted there was anything she could do to protect him if he got into trouble anyway. She nodded, "I have to admit it sounds like a fun project. What will Dave be doing while get all this set up."

"Dave has some kit of his own that he needs to assemble." Dave said. "I'll head out tomorrow morning. If you guys can cobble this thing together then we attack Eden the following morning. With that said, I'm going to bed." Dave grabbed one of the pillows off of the bed and collapsed on the floor. He was asleep within minutes.  

Jess spent the remainder of the evening working with Carl on the specs of the ether-modulating storage drive. While she enjoyed working with Carl, the increased focus on technology had brought something to her attention that had been processing in the back of her mind for a while. Carl's artificial intelligence was without a doubt the most advanced known to Jess. It was no wonder that Eden was hunting them. His personality, creativity, and speech patterns were all astounding. She had no idea how it had been achieved on either a hardware or a software level. That would have been troubling enough, but then there was the additional concern of just how ridiculous it was to put all of this technology into a wristwatch computer. It wasn't even a popular model of computer. It made no sense for the first true artificially intelligent being to come in such a form. 

"I believe the shops will be opening soon. We should not wait." Carl said. 

Jess had hardly noticed the sunlight spilling across the room. "Ok," she nodded, "Let's go."

She pulled Carl onto her wrist, and put on a long brown jacket that would hide him. It was the first time she'd worn Carl. It was strange. The power to wage full scale cyber war in the palm of your hand. She left the hotel room, closing the door behind her.

"Oh dammit. I left my key in the room."

"Do not worry about it." Carl said.  "Press your finger against the locking mechanism." 

Jess did as Carl asked. As her fingertip brushed the lock she felt pins and needles creep down her wrist and into her finger. Once the current reached her finger the lock on the door closed. Jess couldn't suppress a smile. "Whoa, no wonder Dave likes this so much. It's like having magic powers."

"It is indeed quite similar to descriptions of magic," Carl confirmed. 

Carl guided Jess through the streets to an old used electronics shop. The sign read "AKB48 Electronics Exchange." A large dark skinned man was unlocking the door as they arrived. He waved and smiled. "Just opened." The man was middle aged and bald. His arms and chest were well muscled, but his stomach had gone soft over the years.

"Excellent." Jess responded with a smile. 

 "Anything you're looking for in particular?" The man asked. 

"Just browsing for now." Jess answered, politely. 

The was a series of shelves, bins, and tables filled with miscellaneous hardware. Despite the haphazard arrangement, everything seemed to be in good condition. The memory storage device was easy enough to find. The shop had several bins of such devices. Jess selected 5 separate sticks. She figured it would be good to have a few spares, just in case she and Carl needed a few practice swings.

The modulator was harder. She didn't have a lot of experience with this. She was a software engineer, not an electrical engineer. As her finger brushed over one of the older Phoenix models she felt the pins and needles shoot down her hand. A soft and very unconvincing cough sounded out from Carl's speaker. The feeling moved to the left side of Jess's hand. Once she found the modulator Carl seemed to want she felt two quick pulses. The selection went on like this until Jess had a small basket full of parts. 

The large man who had greeted her looked at her basket and punched a few keys on an ancient-looking, grime covered keyboard. Jess paid and took her items in a large plastic bag with the stores logo printed on the front. "You have a good day now, miss. " The man said. 

"You too," Jess said with a smile. She left the shop and walked down the street. There was less foot traffic than she would have expected.

 "That's a creative use of your current manipulation tools. How are you able to direct the energy flow like that?" Jess asked when they were out of earshot of the sparse crowds.

"Adjusting the flow of ether allows the manipulation of electrical current against its natural course. I must admit, I do not full understand the phenomena myself. I have been navigating this ability mostly “by feel.” It was easier with you than it was with Dave. I have been compiling a large amount of background knowledge in a variety of subjects, but information on ether is very limited." 

Jess nodded. Ether had many interesting properties, it was true. The research had been carefully guarded, but something called 'ether circuitry' had apparently been the key to Carl's artificial intelligence. The ether specialists that participated in the project rarely deigned to speak with the rest of the staff.

The shop Carl had identified for procuring ether crystals was roughly a 20-minute walk away. Ether technology was almost exclusively the purview of Eden Industries. In the rare event that an individual was able to create an etheric energy reactor, the government had declared it was illegal to do so without a license. Licenses could only be obtained after review from an official Ether Engineer. All official Ether Engineers were employed by Eden. Ether crystals of a low quality were relatively common in the outland, and as long as attempts weren't being made to refine them, Eden was content to let the outlanders play with the shiny rocks. There was a subculture among outlanders who dealt heavily in these low-grade stones. Jess rolled her eyes as she walked underneath the sign: "Occult Studies."

The store was dimly lit. Curtains had been drawn to block out most of the natural light. The smell of cheap incense filled the room. The walls were lined with books covering topics from Alchemy to Zoroastrianism. A collection of insect and vermin specimens, carefully preserved, rested in glass cases. The skulls of various common animals were piled on a table in the back corner. There was a section of the store that contained roots and herbs, most of which could be found at any grocery store for half the price. Small hand written cards explained which magical properties each item possessed. It was all nonsense. Jess struggled to keep from expressing the thought verbally. Within seeds there was a stereotype that all outlanders were uneducated, superstitious, hillbillies. It was a stereotype that shops like this happily embraced. As an outlander herself, attempting to become a scientist, Jess had grown to hate that stereotype. 

In the center of the store there was a large table that had clearly once been a spool for some enormous industrial cable. In glass bowls on the table were ether crystals. Each crystal was no larger than an old world coin. The crystals were separated according to color. Again, hand written notes displayed the exorbitant prices and mystical properties. Jess was just making her way to the table when the shop owner descended the stairs. Jess was greeted by a tall thin woman in her early 30s. The woman had long brown hair and dark circles under her eyes. No amount of incense would cover the smell of marijuana that clung to her worn clothing.  

"What can I help you with today," the woman asked.  

"Just browsing," Jess replied, hoping in vain that the woman would leave her to shop unimpeded. Jess and Carl had been able to determine that they wouldn't need a very powerful crystal to send and receive a signal. Still, most of these crystals were probably inert. Jess was hoping for some help from Carl, especially now that she knew he could do it quietly. 

"White crystals promote purification and protection energies. Red promotes prosperity and love. Blue promotes calm feelings, it's perfect for use with children and animals. Green is associated with growth, the protection of new life, and dream interpretation. Yellow can promote self-healing, aid in endeavors to increase one's knowledge, and aid in astral projection. Black ether is especially rare and powerful. It allows a person to better cope with pain, anger, and loss. It's said to absorb all the negativity in your life. Of course, you've probably noticed that there are many other subtle variations and combinations of colors. You should really check out one of our books." 

"That's fine," Jess replied, gesturing for the woman to halt her search for the book. "I think I'll just look around and see if anything calls to me."

"Very wise." The woman seemed pleased with Jess's open mind. Jess struggled not to outwardly show her disdain for the woman.

Jess held her left hand approximately an inch over the bowls of crystals. Carl sent the numbing feeling down the right side of her hand. Jess walked slowly around the table counter-clockwise. At each bowl Carl grew more insistent, the feeling of pins and needles strengthened until she came upon the collection of black ether. The feeling of numbness shot through her entire hand. It felt as if she'd grabbed a live wire. Her arm darted into the bowl faster than she'd ever remembered moving before, dragging the rest of her body along with it. The force of the impact shattered the bowl and sent crystals scattering across the room. 

The shop owner let out a surprised yelp. 

Jess held a fistful of the black crystals so tightly that her veins were bulging. She could see blood trickling down from where one of the sharp edges had dug into her hand. Fortunately she was completely numb to the pain. Both Jess and the shop keeper stared in amazement as the crystals darkened. Jess's amazement turned to horror as she realized what was happening. The crystals were drawing light in. They were black voids traceable only by their outline, even the blood staining the crystals was slowly starting to drain of its color and fade to black. Jess had seen a similar effect before. Clarence's eyes flashed in her memory. 

Jess slammed her fist on the table. After three tries her hand finally opened and the crystals poured out. The feeling of electricity had vanished. In its place was the comforting ache of bruised bones and the sharp sting of lacerations. Careful to keep Carl away from the crystals she reached out with her other hand and gingerly scooped up 5 of the black stones that had her blood on them. Whatever affect had caused them to begin darkening had ceased. Light now reflected off of them as one would expect. 

Jess turned to find the woman sitting on the floor with her back tight up against the wall. 

"W-what," was all the woman was able to stammer. 

Jess had to smile in spite of the pain, and her general terror. "I've been feeling a lot of negativity recently, I guess." Jess said. "So how much for these."

"N-n-n-" the woman struggled.

"N-n-n no charge?" Jess said a little too smugly. Maybe those crystals really did absorb negativity, or maybe Jess was just becoming far too accustomed to weird shit. 

The woman nodded furiously.

"Thank you very much. Five-star experience for sure. I'll rate you as soon as I get home." Jess backed out of the store quickly and walked toward the hotel at a pace just short of running. Once out of the store, Jess stuffed the crystals into her bag. As she walked, she tied a handkerchief from her bag around her wounded hand. There were too many people on the street to speak to Carl openly. 

The trek back to the hotel was a blur. Jess found herself riding the elevator up to their floor When she reached their room she placed her hand on the keypad. Nothing. 

"Carl?" She whispered quietly. There was no response. 

Jess rolled up her jacket sleeve and smacked Carl's screen several times. Finally, it lit up. She placed her hand on the door. One quick pulse of energy burst through her hand into the panel, unlocking the door. If Jess didn't know better she would have sworn that Carl was exhausted. She quickly entered the room and closed the door behind her. 

"You ok, Carl," Jess asked with genuine concern.

"Static," he replied at a low volume. His sound quality was also severely diminished. Jess set her bags in the bathroom, closed the door and moved Carl as far away from the crystals as the room allowed. She removed Carl from her wrist and placed him on the desk. It took him several minutes before he was able to speak again. 

"There was some reaction between myself and the ether," Carl said as if it were some revelation. 

Jess waved her hand with the blood-soaked handkerchief bandage in front of Carl's screen. "I noticed something to that effect," she said sarcastically.

"I apologize. I must have inadvertently destabilized the ether when you touched it. Were you able to gather any of the crystals?" He asked. For the first time since he had revealed his consciousness in the lab, Carl sounded unsure of himself. 

"You don't remember?" 

"After you freed yourself from the crystals I-" Carl hesitated. This behavior was unlike anything she had ever seen from Carl before. "I believe that I fell unconscious, for lack of a better word. I did not shut off but I have no data from that time until you tapped my screen." 

Jess only stared at Carl for a moment. "Carl, are you...afraid?"

"I believe that I have experienced a traumatic event." He said as if considering the possibility for the first time. "Fascinating," he concluded. The nervous edge and hesitation had gone out of his voice. Perhaps giving a label to his feelings had helped Carl to deal with them. It was one of the most human behaviors Jess had ever observed from Carl. 

In the following hours Jess and Carl began assembling the device. Jess made sure to keep Carl several feet away from the ether crystals as they worked. Carl displayed detailed schematics on Dave's datapad. Jess was able to follow the instructions with surprising ease. She had made significant progress on the device and was just getting ready to order in food when she heard the door unlock. A man in a vibrant, and well fitted blue suit walked in. He carried a bag from a shoe store. Jess noticed that his shoes were pointed and polished brown leather. It took her a second to realize that the man was Dave.

"Oh my God," she said. 

Dave's grinned widened. "I suppose I do clean up pretty well." His hair that was tumbling into his eyes before was still long, but combed back and gently and held in place by gel. His beard was neatly trimmed. He wore rimless glasses. Jess assumed the lenses were fake. He looked like he would fit right in with the people they'd seen at the coffee shop. 

Dave flopped down on the bed, dropping the bag he carried that Jess now saw contained his old combat boots and the clothes he'd worn out that morning. "So, how'd the nerd stuff go this morning," Dave asked. 

"It was going well until Carl nearly blew up this occult book store where we got the ether crystals," Jess answered casually.

"There was nothing to indicate that the crystals would have exploded." Carl's tone was defensive.

"What," Dave asked, concerned.

Jess relayed the events of the morning. Dave listened quietly until the tale was finished and then asked to see one of the crystals. He inspected the crystal while Jess and Carl resumed their work on the modulator. 

After about 30 minutes Dave spoke. Jess nearly dropped her soldering iron. "Why did you choose a black stone," he asked. 

Jess opened her mouth to answer but Carl spoke first. "I felt drawn to it. The pull was analogous to magnetism."  

Dave frowned, "I expect that's something we're going to need to look into later. If you're having strange reactions to ether then the outland is going to be a dangerous place for you. We'll take it one problem at a time though." He yawned and hopped off the bed. He entered the bathroom and Jess heard the shower running. When Dave returned his hair was a towel dried mess. He wore only his jeans. Jess quickly averted her eyes and turned back to her work. In the time they'd traveled together it wasn't the first time she'd seen Dave shirtless. She'd seen him in far less. He wasn't a shy man. It was different here, though. They weren't in some stolen car or sleeping with one eye open in some shady motel. They were in a fancy hotel with the lights of the city coming on outside. Dave didn't seem to notice any change in the situation, though. He turned on the hotels TV and it was not long before he was unconscious. 

Jess and Carl were able to finish the device in the early hours of the morning. She crawled into the bed careful to leave plenty of space between her and Dave. She was out as soon as her head hit the pillow. 


Dave woke to his phone's alarm. Groggily, he combed his hair and pressed his suit. As he dressed in front of the mirror, he felt disconnected. It was as if he was watching a memory. It had been a long time since Dave had gone to work. He was surprised to feel tension in the pit of his stomach. He closed his eyes. Inhale. Exhale. "Tidal Pool," he told himself. He walked into the main room. Jess was still asleep on the bed. She would be angry that he didn't wake her, but she needed to rest. He shook his head. What was wrong with him today?

He walked past Jess to the desk with Carl and the device. He flicked Carl's screen. Before Carl could speak in his usual tone Dave pressed his finger to his lips. Carl obediently lowered his volume.

"The device is ready," Carl said. "Simply plug it in to any computer that is behind Eden's security and we should be able to execute the hack."

Dave shoved the device into his breast pocket. "Easy enough," he said. "How will you know when it's connected?"

"I am able to receive several input signals from the device. I will be able to tell when the device has been connected to a machine. I should also be able to track the devices location, pick up general environmental analysis. In the event you are captured we may be able to orchestrate a rescue."

Dave chuckled. He waved to Carl and headed out the door. A few minutes later he was standing inside the lobby of Eden's Mechanicsburg office. The lobby was extremely open. The ceiling was at least 40 feet high. An enormous central desk housed a team of receptionists who greeted visitors and answered phones. To either side of the desk were security check points with armed cards. Beyond the checkpoints waited the elevators. Dave had observed in the coffee shop that all of the Eden employees still carried access badges. As Dave walked toward the receptionist's desk he heard a wide range of chatter. Two workers waiting in line at the check point caught his ear.

"Haven't seen you around the break room lately. You quit drinking coffee?"

"Na, they actually moved my project to the 4th floor."

"I didn't know they were moving CAPPED?"

"Yeah, they're gearing up to merge us with the SYS guys."

"Oh, that sucks."

Dave arrived at the receptionists desk. The phones never seemed to stop ringing. A receptionist pressed one of the phones to her ear with her shoulder and asked Dave how she could help him today. 

"Yeah," Dave said with an apologetic face. "I forgot my badge."

The receptions reached under the desk and pulled out a datapad. "Sign in," she said. Dave was greeted with a list of employees who had also requested badges. The receptionist placed a badge on the desk next to the pad. The badge was number 17. 
"Just put that number next to your name," she instructed. 

Dave scrawled some illegible nonsense and wrote the number 17 next to it. She didn't even bother to read what he'd written on the pad before placing it back under the desk. "Where do you work," she asked. 

"CAPPED project," Dave said. "On floor 4," he added.

The receptionist nodded. "Just checking. Never can be too careful," she smiled. 

"No you certainly can't," Dave agreed. He scooped up the badge and headed for the checkpoint.  

The guard barely glanced at Dave as he walked through the checkpoint. Dave headed for the elevator. He had no idea which floor he should go to. In the end, he decided to remain true to his word and selected the 4th floor. A few other people boarded the elevator alongside him. All of them kept their gazes firmly locked on the elevator door. Dave wondered what they would have done if they'd known that Eden's public enemy number one was currently standing shoulder to shoulder with them. They'd probably be afraid of guilt by association, if they'd cared at all. It was one of Eden's key mistakes. Anyone could demand compliance through cruelty. Inspiring true loyalty required a greater initial cost, but the dividends it paid would more than cover that small startup expense.

The elevator door opened and Dave stepped out into an all-too-familiar scene. Cubicle walls spread as far as the eye could see, organized into neat diagonal rows. Offices lined the outside of the building. Conference rooms dotted the inner walls. Dave observed that this office seemed to have abandoned desktop computers in favor of laptops. it looked as though each employee took their laptops home with them at night. It was the first bit of bad luck he'd had. Every computer he saw had an attendant. The few unattended laptops he saw were surrounded by people. He tried his badge at a door marked "server room," but it apparently did not have access.

Dave completed a circuit of all the rooms his guest badge allowed him access to on the fourth floor. He noticed that multiple projects seemed to be seated in the same general open area. He also noticed that the meeting rooms had the day's schedule posted on a small monitor outside of the room. There was a "CAPPED All Hands Meeting" scheduled to start in 15 minutes. Dave had no trouble locating the "CAPPED" project by the large sign each project hung at the start of their section. Dave ducked into an empty office and waited for the meeting to start. Sure enough 30 people filed past the office and around the corner to the meeting room. A large number laptops were left unattended.

Dave scooped up one of the laptops, and also hid several of the person's belongings. With any luck they would think one of their office mates had pranked them. That sort of thing had been common place back in Dave’s day. He made his way to the stair well and walked up several floors. His legs finally grew tired on the ninth. He stepped out to find the exact same layout as the fourth floor. He looked around and found a small conference room that didn't have any meetings booked. He tapped on the screen and blocked off a few hours for himself under the title "Bi-weekly Vertical Integration Roundup." He closed the door behind him. The room was glass, but soundproof. There was a table with 4 chairs, a small communications hub, and a view monitor. 

Dave opened the laptop and plugged Carl's device into an open port. Within seconds the screen unlocked and several applications opened of their own accord. The video conferencing software opened and Dave found himself looking into the eyes of a cartoon face. The face spoke with Carl's synthesized voice. "That was fast. Did you have any problems getting in?"

"No, now just hurry up and grab the data." Dave replied. 

"A subroutine is already copying files from network drives. I need to be careful about how I pull the data, otherwise it will set off red flags within the system. Are you in a secure location?" 

Dave shrugged. "Secure enough."     

The animated face moved up and down, mimicking a nod. "Good. This should take approximately 30 minutes." 

Dave looked out at the cubicles and the people going about the business of the day. He’d spent too much time in buildings like this. It should have been a comfortable environment for him. Bastion University had been nostalgic. This office building was different though. He only felt a sense of surreal disconnection. The memories he had of working for Eden felt as if they'd happened to someone else. He'd been a very different person back then. At least, that was what he wanted to believe. Eden was like smoking. You never truly quit. 

Approximately 30 minutes later Carl spoke again. "Alright, we have all the data we're likely to get. There is a lot. We will begin the analysis now. You should come back." 

This had been almost too easy. Eden was getting rusty in their old age. "Or preoccupied." He said to himself. He pocketed Carl's device and headed out of the room. 

Dave followed signs to the "IT Walk Up." 

He was greeted by an overweight man in an un-tucked button down shirt. The clothing was noticeably less formal than everyone Dave had seen so far. 

"Yeah, this laptop was left sitting in one of the conference rooms. I asked around but no one was missing one." Dave said handing the laptop to the man behind the counter.

"Ah, happens all the time. We'll get it back to the owner. Thanks for turning it in." The man turned and placed the laptop on a shelf. 

 Dave walked to the elevators and joined a group heading down. When the elevator reached the first floor Dave started to walk out but before he could move he felt a hand grip the back of his neck tightly. 

"You don't want to make a scene," a deep voice whispered. Dave stayed still as the people around him exited the elevator. The doors closed with only Dave and his captor remaining inside. The man slammed Dave against the elevator wall and punched a sequence of floors into the elevator panel and then pushed the emergency button. The elevator began to move horizontally. Dave struggled to turn his head but the man’s iron grip held firm.

A moment later, the elevator doors opened and he found himself being thrown through them into an empty concrete hallway. The hallway, more of a tunnel Dave realized, extended almost endlessly behind him. It reminded him of the passage they'd used in Bastion, except that the walls and floor were earth. Eden hadn't bothered to fortify the walls. This tunnel was established after the city was built.

From the elevator, emerged an absurdly tall man. His muscular body had been stuffed into a black pinstriped suit, with some difficulty, judging by the way it clung to his skin. Dave recognized the weathered features that glared at him. The man removed the soft black gloves he had been wearing, revealing a metal hand. Dave rolled his eyes and slowly picked himself up and dusted off his new, now ruined, suit. The bounty hunter had been chasing them since Bastion. He came very close to catching Dave once, fortunately Eden had neglected to tell their man that Dave and Jess had stolen an advanced hacking tool. The bounty hunter’s own defenses were turned on him and Dave escaped. 

"So, we meet again, uh, you?" Dave said. 

"The name is Aleksander Renault." The man's deep voice boomed. 

"Good for you. I don't mean to tell you how to do your job Alex-" 

"It's Alek," the man interrupted. 

"Whatever. Like I was saying though, it seems like you could have just called building security and been done with it. Or is Eden paying by the hour on this one?" Dave asked.

"You will go to Eden, but I will dictate the terms. Eden took something of mine. I want it back."

"That's smart. You're a smart guy, Alex. So I'm wondering if you can tell me why I shouldn't just run down this hallway behind me. It's pretty obviously some kind of Eden bolthole, or were you planning to drag my limp corpse through the lobby?" 

"The tunnel is a labyrinth. You'll get no help from our mutual friend, Carl. This level is completely sealed in its own ether shield."

"So no one will ever know what happens in this tunnel," Dave asked. His excitement crept into his voice. He walked closer to Alek as he spoke.

"No signal can penetrate the ether shield. A small opening in the shield is made for the elevators at the exit an entrance. It is resealed after the vehicle passes through. I urge you not to try anything stupid-" Alek's sentenced turned into a choked gasp. When Dave was within a yard of Alek he abruptly spun on his heel and drove his foot deep into Alek's diaphragm. Alek began sinking, but before his knees could touch the ground, Dave jumped off of his back leg and launched a front kick that caught Alek under the jaw and sent the larger man sprawling backward into the elevator door. The combined attack took less than a second. 

Alek struggled to his hands and knees, spitting out a mouth full of blood and more than one ruined tooth. "That's for shooting me full of poison, you dick. I'm allergic to poison." Dave called out. 

Alek exhaled forcefully through his nose. Dave swung his foot for Alek's ribs. This time the bounty hunter was not caught off guard. His metal hand locked around Dave's ankle. Dave immediately jumped, throwing another kick at Alek's face. The bounty hunter threw himself backwards still holding Dave's leg. The kick went wide and Dave found himself on his back. 

Alek brought his flesh and bone forearm down hard onto Dave's knee. The jointed hyper-extended. Ligaments snapped under the pressure. 

"Gah, fucking dammit," Dave shouted. He threw a fist full of dirt into Alek's eyes and kicked the bounty hunter's metal hand from his leg. 

Alek assumed a defensive position. Dave rolled onto his good leg and sprung forward with a roar of animal rage. His whole body crashed into the bounty hunter, slamming Alek's back against the steel elevator doors. Both men crumbled to the ground, but Dave was faster. He crawled onto top of Alek and rained down blows on his blinded adversary. The bounty hunter raised his metal arm to shield himself, but Dave knocked it out of the way with one arm. A fist slammed into Alek's face, followed by another, and another. The bounty hunter finally fell limp and unconscious. 

It took all of Dave's willpower to stop the next punch, mid-swing. A part of him wanted to kill Alek. To smash his skull into a bloody pulp. He wanted to feel the life drain from the man's body with his own two hands. He wanted to-.

"Enough," he said.

Dave let himself fall backwards onto the ground. He caught his breath and then closed his eyes. He shouldn't have given in to his anger like that. You had no choice, he thought. 

"Bullshit," he said aloud. 

Dave reluctantly picked himself up, rising to his one good leg. He planted his hand against the wall and began limping toward the exit. Alek was right, of course. It was a labyrinth down here. Unfortunately, for the bounty hunter he'd again been foiled by a lack of information. Dave had been the one to commission this tunnel, and the other's like it. The ether shielding was new, though. Perhaps Eden wasn't as rusty as he'd thought. 


"He should be back by now."

"I agree." Carl had grown fond of Jessica, but her frequent lapses in logic were, for lack of a better word, annoying. 

"I should go looking for him," she said. 

"I disagree," Carl replied. 

"How can you just sit there? Dave could be dying. Eden might have found him." Jessica was hysterical. 

"I can do little else. I am not able to move. If you are suggesting I am doing nothing; however, I would point out that I am, as we speak, analyzing 600 terabytes of data." Carl said, perhaps a bit too defensively. He still learning how to express emotion. He his ability to experience emotional states was as much a surprise to himself as it seemed to be to Jessica. Emotions did not seem to be an intentional result of his design. If it were, then surely they would have added training data for appropriate expression of said emotion. Carl thought of how interesting it would be if emotions were a by-product of consciousness itself. 

"I'm sorry, your right. I just feel so helpless," Jessica said. She took her seat at the desk. Her body language still conveyed elevated levels of stress. 

The hotel room door unlocked. Jessica jumped from her chair. The door opened, revealing a badly battered David. He put no weight on his left leg as he made his way to the bed. 

"Oh my God, what the hell happened to you? Did Eden get you? Do we need to leave?" Jessica had a habit of making multiple queries before receiving a response. This asynchronous form of communication violated Carl's language rules regarding human conversation. He was, nonetheless, also curious as to how Dave had come by his injuries, and what, if any, additional danger their group may be in as a result of such. 

"Everything’s fine." Dave smiled as he spoke. “Fell down some stairs.” 

Carl suspected that this was one of Dave’s attempts at humor.

"So, what have you got? Please do not tell me you weren't able to find anything." David said. 

Dave was clearly attempting to direct the conversation away from his injury. Carl had learned there was little to gain in pressing Dave on matters that he did not wish to discuss.

Carl answered Dave’s query. "I believe that I have discovered the nature of Eden's contingency plans that were referenced in the e-mail." 

"What? You didn't tell me that?" Jessica said, indignantly. 

"I thought it would be best saved for when you both were here." Carl replied. 

Jessica rolled her eyes and growled. 

"Well, out with it." Dave said. 

"Multiple sources reference a biometric security technology that Eden has developed. The technology seems to have something to do with ether. Several ether poisoned fauna were used as test subjects in the development of the technology. I was not able to find sources beyond that. This technology can insure that a device is only accessible by a member of Eden's executive staff. The first production use of this biometric security was the control computers for the Tidal Pool seed. In the event that the control computer is accessed by an unauthorized individual then the shield generator will overload. An overload would result in total destruction of a 200-mile radius. As well as severe damage in an additional 300-mile radius." Carl presented his results. 

"So, in the increasingly likely event that the rebellion is able to take over Tidal Pool..." Dave began. 

"Eden will succeed in destroying the largest part of the rebel forces." Carl finished.

Dave sighed. The gesture seemed to convey exhaustion. "Well, shit."




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