Entertainingly Evil
22
May

“All Hell to Wake” By Renee Stern

Two days into my medical leave from the mess in Nepal, the walls of my rowhouse were already too close around me for comfort. I walked the block to the station, breathing easier, and caught the southbound tram for my favorite pub near the Nonhuman Suppression Agency’s headquarters.

At midday the tram wasn’t crowded, especially after we left Baltimore. I was used to the commuter runs, standing room only with workers shuttling to and from homes and offices along the Washington-Baltimore corridor. NSA headquarters was almost smack in the middle, and though I could easily afford a big house close by, I wasn’t normally home long enough to make it worthwhile. Nor did I want to draw my employers’ attention to rumors of Roxton family wealth best left forgotten.

My rowhouse in a cozy city neighborhood also offered an anonymity the suburbs didn’t. Not that the hand-to-elbow healing glove on my right arm was exactly covert. I scratched at my muttonchops with my still-awkward left hand.

One of the nosy senior citizens who spent their days riding back and forth on the trams plopped into the seat across the aisle. “What’d you do to yourself, hon? That looks painful.”

I suppressed a sigh. I’d been brought up with the strictest respect for my elders. “Workplace accident. It’ll be fine in a few days.”

She leaned across the aisle, and I wanted to curse for giving her an opening. “Where do you work, hon?”

“Fort Meade.” I hoped that would shut her up.

“Oooh,” she said, drawing it out in a way that told me she knew all too well what I meant. We were supposed to be discreet, but everyone who lived in the area seemed to be in on the secret. “So which nonhumans did that?” She reached out to my arm, and I drew it back before she could touch it. The glove’s tech wasn’t classified, but it was delicate. “Not that nasty Jersey Devil, I hope.”

I managed a faint smile. We’d dealt with the Jersey Devil decades ago, a pussycat these days compared to the yeti colony that had put me on medical leave. Chessie on the other hand–let’s just say I needed lots of beer before and after the lake and sea serpent assignments, far worse than the plesiosaurs back home. “I’m not at liberty to say, ma’am.”

“Oh, I know all about that, hon.” She beamed and leaned in even closer, so that the cloud of Old Bay that clung to her like perfume almost choked me. “My neighbor’s nephew’s girlfriend works there. Maybe you know her?”

I spotted the announcement of the Hanover stop with relief. My favorite pub was one stop past that, but Hanover had a dive almost as good. “My stop, I’m afraid, ma’am. A pleasure talking to you.” I slid out of my seat and headed for the door before she could press me anymore. The NSA wasn’t as big as some agencies, but big enough, given that we kept an eye on nonhumans all over the world, that we couldn’t know everyone. Yet all the civilians I’d run into during my eight years there seemed to have some tenuous connection to an employee, past or present, and expected me to know their friend-neighbor-paperboy-Little League coach.

Outside, on the platform, I lifted my face to the sky and soaked up the heat and humidity of a perfect Maryland summer day. The Amazon jungle of my isolated boyhood home was hotter and more humid, but this weather was just what I needed after the ice and frostbite of the Himalayas.

A Hellfire IPA or two would make the afternoon perfect. Manny’s Bar & Grill was a long five blocks away, but I didn’t mind walking. I’d injured my arm, not my legs, and I needed to stay in shape. I planned to be back in the field ahead of medical schedule.

#

Manny’s had a few outside tables, which I preferred for their solitude. Most customers retreated to the cozy, high-backed booths kept far too cold by overpowered AC.

I was into my second Hellfire and a perfect softshell sandwich when a trio of Fort Meade civilians with their badges obviously tucked into shirt pockets intruded onto the deck. One of them nodded at me, clearly recognizing me as an off-duty colleague by the healing glove on my arm.

None of them looked familiar, not that I expected it, given that we were closer to the Hanover Annex than main HQ where I was based whenever I was in town. But their conversation as soon as they settled into their table at the far side of the tiny deck grabbed my attention.

The mousy little man in the middle started it. “Did you get roped into that chupacabra outbreak?”

“I heard about it,” said the man who’d nodded at me. He leaned into the table. “But I’m tied up with straightening out the accounting files for the end of the year, so no hope of me getting anything interesting on my desk until after October.”

“You should transfer over to Ops or Support if you want interesting all the time,” the woman with them said. “You’d have to give up that steady day shift, though.”

He shook his head. “My wife would kill me. I’ll have to live vicariously through you.”

Get back to the chupacabras! I took another bite of my sandwich, trying to contain my impatience. I’d never had seafood or beer back home. This was exotic cuisine compared to the giant elk and iguanodon my mother served.

“It’s all a big rush job,” the little mouse said. His voice sounded vaguely familiar, but I couldn’t place it. “Sorry I have to take my lunch back to the office, but the boss needs me to set up that flight to Caracas and then prep for the mission briefing.”

Now I knew where I’d heard his voice: George, or Geoff, or Gerry something, who’d run comms for us at this end on my first mission, a field test that turned sour when that damned baby Chessie decided it wanted to play. We’d never met in person.

The waiter bustled out with a paper bag already showing a sheen of grease, and a tray of drinks for the other two. While he took their lunch orders, Gerry or Geoff or George took the bag and left.

It all smelled to me, and not of grease, Old Bay and beer. Set-up, all my instincts screamed. Even if their talk was all true and above-board, the insult jabbed. Medical leave or not, they should have called me in for a chupacabra outbreak, at least to help with the briefing and HQ support. I was the resident expert on anything to do with South America; I’d earned my place as a field agent with sweat and blood, but they’d hired me in part for my expert knowledge.

12AllHell2Wake1Family history was the other reason. So far the NSA had never managed to find our hidden Lost World, with Great-Granddaddy John’s diamond mine and Professor Challenger’s ape-men, pterodactyls, and other dinosaurs. The agency had suspected from its inception that Doyle’s story of Challenger’s expedition had some basis in fact, just as his Holmes stories did, and they’d hinted from the day they hired me that they wanted both the diamonds and the dinosaurs.

But they’d said then they valued my experience more, and we’d made a deal to take my Amazonian plateau home out of play. After the first year, my bosses would poke and prod every now and then, seemingly casual inquiries about vacations home or keeping in touch with family. I did have a secret channel for emergencies that I’d never yet had to use, so as far as anyone here should know, I’d cut myself off from home.

I should have expected a harder push to come eventually. Our hidden riches were too tempting. I finished off my sandwich and waved away the waiter offering me another beer or dessert. The pair from the agency were well into their own lunch now, chatting, as far as I could tell, about nothing–a fact that underscored my instinct that the chupacabra discussion was a play aimed for my ears.

If I could reason out what they expected me to do, I’d know how best to confound them. How they’d known my location in the first place was also a concern, since I might need to work around whatever they were using to track me. But I could deal with that later.

They might be signaling that my standing within the agency was sinking, hoping to push me into doing something to win back my previous favor. I didn’t have to guess what currency that would take: betraying my friends, my family, my home to the NSA’s ruthless control.

I could pretend to cooperate or refuse to play their game. Neither were viable long-term strategies. I’d either run out of wiggle room or lose all freedom to protect everything I cared about.

The other, more devious interpretation was that they were trying to herd me, manipulate me into panicking and showing them something that would lead them to our Lost World. If so, they’d picked the wrong prey to panic. My record should have illustrated that.

But to some of the higher-ups, I’d never be more than a jungle hick, only a few steps above the Doda ape-men Professor Challenger described: trained well enough for field action, carrying out missions planned by others, but hardly sophisticated enough to handle anything more. It was an image I was happy to foster.

I needed more information before I went any further. The Hanover Annex was not quite a mile from Manny’s, closer than HQ and more likely to be freer with gossip about any hot mission under way over at Fort Meade. Out of habit, I’d tucked my badge into my pocket before I left home. Now habit paid off.

Of course the badge with its ID chip was all too likely the means they’d used to track me. But that also meant they hadn’t had much time to put their plans into play, since even I hadn’t known I’d wind up at Manny’s today.

It couldn’t have been coincidence that I ran into Don Whitstran, one of the field division’s admins, almost as soon as the guard buzzed me into the building. Don hurried across the nearly empty lobby and reached without thinking for my glove before he switched hands to shake my uninjured arm.

“Juan! What a lucky break!” He steered me down a secure hallway. “You’ve saved me a call, turning up like this.”

He was a decent actor, I’d give him that. But not good enough to silence my alarms. “Cabin fever, that’s all. Thought I’d make the rounds and break up the monotony. What’s going on?”

He waved me into the first available meeting room. “A mission’s come up and we need you.”

“Oh? You don’t know how glad I am to hear that.” I smiled, and meant it this time. I’d worked myself up for nothing, unnecessarily twitchy after Nepal.

He half-sat on the table, and I did the same. “Something’s set off Ogopogo again. We need you on the airship out to B.C. ASAP.”

I stared at him, my brief relief shattered. Why would they send their South America expert all the way out to the sticks of Canada when they had something even more urgent on the table in Venezuela? Either they wanted me safely out of the way, snapping to duty like a grateful, obedient soldier as if I’d never smelled their bait at Manny’s, or they were aiming more bolts at my back to push me into panicked reaction. A two-pronged plot that led to gain either way I jumped–this came from much higher up. Don’s mind wasn’t twisty enough.

I’d have to jump in a direction they hadn’t expected.

“Ogopogo?” I finally said, piling all my doubt and dismay onto the word. “Not another damn lake serpent. You know how much I hate those things, Don.”

He shrugged. “We don’t get to pick and choose, unfortunately. We need you on this one, Juan. You’ve got the most experience.”

Maybe so in the broad sense, but Matt had as many water serpent missions on his record and Denise, now I thought of it, had actually been stationed in Inverness for a year. Where were they? I almost asked.

Instead I decided to play good soldier, and tried a weary smile. “Time to go earn that big paycheck again.” I held up my gloved arm. “I suppose I need medical clearance for this before I go?”

“No time. We’ve got a Balloon Corps flight scheduled in three hours to Kelowna, so you need to scoot on home and pack your gear. Medbay will assign someone to your flight to check you out and prep you on the way.”

I whistled. “The brass are awfully confident I’m good to go.”

“C’mon, Juan, of course you’re ready. You know how fast those gloves work–and we both know you’d ace the mission even if you were hurt twice as bad.”

I huffed out a short laugh. “They’re never going to forget Roswell, are they?”

“Or a half-dozen other times you went above and beyond.” He slapped my good shoulder. “Now get going. I’ll have a briefing packet for you when you get back to HQ with your gear.”

If he remembered my service record that well, how could he go along with this plot straight-faced? But Don was a company man. He’d never worked anywhere else, recruited straight out of school, and had put in almost twenty years. He never questioned orders.

He’d never have made it as a field agent. Roswell wasn’t the first time I’d gone off the charts, but it was the most spectacular. I’d delivered though, as always. For a field agent, nothing else mattered.

I faked a stumble on our way out the door, and grabbed Don’s arm to steady myself. “Sorry, I had a couple beers for lunch,” I said as I switched our badges. I had two more objectives before I left the building, and didn’t want anyone tracking me from here on out. “They must be overloading the glove. You’d think Medbay would warn you when they strap you into one of these things.”

He snorted and shook his head as he stepped away. “I’m sure they did. Problem is, you were probably too out of it then to catch it.”

Oh, I remembered all right. But it made a handy excuse, and Don had swallowed it.

He headed on down the hall, deeper into the building. I crossed through the lobby and down an identical secure hall, where a comms clerk owed me a favor.

#

Lisa promised me ten minutes alone while she took care of a few urgent errands. I had time only to skim the comms log, but that was more than enough to confirm all my suspicions.

I leaned on the desk, focusing on my breathing instead of the sick sense of betrayal. Under it all the clock ticked off each second.

The door knob clicked as it twisted open, and I flipped the log closed as I turned to greet Lisa, wondering why she’d cut her errands short. But Don stood there instead, an ugly black stun pistol pointed straight at me.

“Hands where I can see them, Roxton,” he said, no pretense at friendship in his cold, flat voice.

“What’s this all about, Don?” I played dumb, raising my hands and sliding sideways away from the desk for better maneuverability.

He shook his head. “Nice try, but remember where you are. You should have given us what we wanted from the beginning, but you can still redeem yourself. You’ve already done enough to land yourself in the brig for a long time.”

They’d figured out my trick with the badges. But how? Had Lisa given me up?

I spread my ungloved hand wide, as if accepting his verdict. Then I lunged, using the glove as a shield to catch the stun shots, and put him on the floor, hard. Field agent beat admin when it comes to action, every time.

The glove felt cold and dead on my arm now, disabled by Faraday bolts that would have knocked me out. After tucking Whitstran’s pistol into my boot, I fumbled one-handed to unbuckle the glove; underneath, my muscles were stiff and slow, but the fracture and frostbite were nearly healed. I was operational enough.

“How’d you know where to find me?” I prodded a pressure point on his arm, needing to see if I was right to suspect Lisa, or if they had some other means to track me. “I know it couldn’t have been the badge this time. You figured it out sooner than I expected.”

His eyes slid over in a glance at the abandoned glove by his head.

“You tagged the glove, too?” It made sense, I supposed. They couldn’t be sure I’d have the badge while I was on medical leave, but the glove was guaranteed to be with me day and night until they decided otherwise.

I had to set aside the idea of taking and trying to repair it for future need. My technical skills might get me through repairs, but I couldn’t be certain of eradicating all traces of tags.

“The agency doesn’t want me for an enemy,” I told him. “Now that you broke our deal, Roswell will seem like a church picnic when I’m done.”

I pulled the pistol, stepped clear of his body and shot him once in the leg. His back arched up and his head and limbs banged a couple times on the beige tile floor, hard enough to make me wince in sympathy–but only a little. He’d have done the same to me if he’d kept hold of his weapon. At least he wouldn’t wake up in the brig. Probably.

I had to hurry now. Whitstran had thrown off my timetable.

Any mission, no matter how complex or dangerous, broke down to one step at a time. I bound and gagged Whitstran, rifled his pockets for extra cash, and stuffed him, my badge and the broken glove into the records room, out of sight. That took care of immediate discovery and pursuit.

Next step, diversions. I tapped out a message to the Balloon Corps station at Meade, moving up the Caracas flight and requesting passenger pickup at the commercial airfield near Hannex. That would at least confuse and delay the mission team long enough for me to act. After the station acknowledged, I overwrote the log with a second request, this time to the unit at Camp Spring for a flight to Fort Bliss. I still had contacts there from the Roswell mission and it was close enough to the Mexican border that Whitstran and the others chasing me would have to consider it a viable starting point.

I rushed through blanking the second request, leaving just enough traces to build a plausible diversion. I needed as many distractions as possible to cover me when I snuck into HQ. My first instinct was to rush home to organize a defense, but those same instincts told me that’s what the higher-ups were counting on. I’d send a warning home later.

Even with Great-Granddaddy John’s diamonds and mustering all the discontented nonhumans I’d dealt with over the years, we couldn’t hold out forever against the full force of the NSA and its allies. Better to attack first, straight at their heart. The best defense is usually a good offense.

#

To my relief, I escaped Hannex without apparent difficulty. Whitstran’s badge did the trick. I couldn’t have made it out as myself, not after dumping the glove and its extra beacon.

All the same, I kept an eye out for a tail, all the way to the tram. No one tripped my alarms. On the platform, I disabled the transmitter on Whitstran’s badge, just in case, and hopped the southbound tram, jumping off at Odenton a quick walk from my secret storage unit and its collection of unofficial gear.

I’d cobbled together a transmitter that might serve now, scrounging parts and shrugging off dead ends in my down time. The R&D crew kept ignoring my suggestions for projects that might help in the field, sending back memos in sludgy, multisyllabic prose that boiled down to “You brawn. We brains. Leave thinking to us.”

They handed out enough useful goodies that I usually didn’t mind. I was glad to have their healing gloves after a mission, but common sense screamed out for something better than Faraday bolts and flame guns when we faced off with water serpents.

We needed more discretion, something to avoid the confrontations in the first place. I’d put the finishing touches on my latest attempts before Nepal, but hadn’t had time for field tests. No time like today.

I had to backtrack a little first, to make one adjustment that I’d discovered earlier would attract serpents rather than repel them. After that I set my clockwork transmitters free to fly to their targets like the overgrown insects I’d modeled them on.

I had enough transmitters for three tests, and I used them all. One-upping R&D and finding a good use for the whole Chessie family were satisfying bonuses.

If it worked, drawing the serpents up the Patapsco would look like an attack on Baltimore. Another feint up the Severn would throw the Naval Academy and the state capitol into my chaotic stew. I sent the third transmitter over to the Magothy, in between the other two rivers; plenty of residential development and pleasure boaters to terrify there. It wasn’t overkill, but sound tactics.

While they were on their way, I sorted through my wardrobe for the right disguise to get me through the gates without question. Whitstran’s badge was too risky. Lisa or anyone else at Hannex might have found him in the records room by now, and his badge might already be flagged as heavily as my own.

I rested my hand over a collection of uniforms. Better than civvies. No one looked beyond a uniform, and I’d blend easily into the military crowds at Meade. It meant sacrificing my muttonchops though–too distinctive in their own right, as well as a military uniform violation that could shatter my disguise.

I took one last look in the mirror before the razor’s first swipe. I’d grown the muttonchops on my first mission, hoping to look older and more dashing, the image of the perfect field agent. Without them, who was I?

The blade was cold against my cheek, the naked swath behind it prickling in a sudden draft. A few more swipes and a younger face with older eyes stared back at me. Still myself, just as a fer-de-lance remained its poisonous self even after shedding its skin. I tried out my best evil grin to acknowledge the aptness of that image, and had to turn away. I’d need some time to recognize that expression as my own.

My bite had always been deadly. This time my handlers had turned that poison on themselves.

#

No one gave me even a first look in my BDUs with their Signal Corps insignia as I crowded onto the Fort Meade tram near my storage unit. The late-afternoon runs were always busy with workers going on and coming off duty, perfect for my purposes.

First, acquire a new badge. I brushed against several off-duty soldiers, looking for the right target; as soon as I found one, my quick fingers swapped Whitstran’s disabled badge for his. Most people never looked closely at their badges, just checked that they had something the right size, shape and weight in its accustomed place. I should be finished and long gone before–I darted a quick look at the new badge clipped onto my chest–Sergeant Ed Bustamante set off alarms when he tried to use Whitstran’s.

I wished I could feel more than vague regret at splashing a stranger with a little of my mud, but it wouldn’t stick to him for long. At least not if he started out clean.

But who among us was truly clean? I’d thought I was serving humanity as well as protecting my home in my work for the agency, but my certainty had shattered along with my trust. Were the yeti I’d killed back in Nepal enough of a threat to justify our attention in the first place? Or the sasquatch we’d hunted to extinction? I’d slipped into bed with the Devil, whoring myself for the greater good. I shouldn’t be shocked or hurt when the agency used me and screwed me, yet I was.

Mind on the mission, Roxton, I warned myself.12AllHell2Wake2

As soon as I hopped off the shuttle, I stepped out of the stream of swing-shift workers heading into NSA headquarters and knelt down as if tying my boots so that I could raid the pocket with my stock of rank insignia. Instant promotion from the anonymous SpecTwo who’d stepped out of my storage unit up to Bustamante’s sergeant stripes. Switching my weight to the other knee, I palmed the new photo I’d shot and slapped it over Bustamante’s face. In case anyone looked closer than the uniform, everything matched.

Inside the square, windowless building, the first signs of alarm were obvious. The guards were passing people through with barely a glance to make sure they had badges. Swing shift usually never had this many people scurrying through the halls, and I caught puzzled snatches of conversation about the Chessie crisis. I suppressed the grin that kept trying to break through.

So far, so good.

House-cleaning next, as much as I could manage. I didn’t have time to wipe me and where I came from from all possible records filed everywhere in the building, let alone what had filtered out to Hannex and other satellite offices. Nor did I have tools to alter memories in all the personnel–analysts, briefers, field staff and support crews–involved. But I could set them back, and make it hurt.

My path down to the main archives took me by Ops, but the flow of preoccupied staff kept me safely hidden. I glanced in as I passed, recognizing Matt’s build and familiar sharp hand movements from the back. With him on the job, I had to wonder if my manufactured crisis would hold up long enough. I ducked my head and hurried by.

I needed to buy more time. A plan of the building formed in my mind: Ops here, main archives there and me a hundred yards along this corridor. Left at the next intersection, a secondary comms station: Exactly what I needed.

The station wasn’t empty, of course, but they’d left only a single private to staff the post after day shift. Any more bodies called in for the crisis hadn’t been deployed here yet. It wouldn’t take long to engineer my latest diversion.

The private jumped up when I strode in, the pages of the manual he’d been studying fluttering shut on the table in front of him. “I’m here for an incoming,” I said. “Go get us a couple coffees while I wait.”

“Yes, Sergeant.” He rushed off.

Part of me, the part still torn about betrayals, wanted to chew him out for the security breach. The rest of me loved the way stripes and a uniform took in so many people.

As soon as he cleared the doorway, I slid under the long counter and started pulling, swapping and splicing wires. I needed a short that would burn long and ugly with as much smoke as possible. The housings for the comms equipment burned toxic. Evacuating at least this floor would keep them too preoccupied to bother me down in the archives.

If they eventually put it all together under my name, maybe they’d leave me and mine alone.

It all came together better than I had a right to expect. I was back on my feet, flipping through the private’s manual–Radio Operator’s Handbook, basic material–when he hurried into the room with two paper cups.

“What’s that smell?” he muttered, then, louder: “Do you smell that, Sergeant?”

I shook my head. “Just shaking off a cold. Why?”

“Smoke.” He thrust the coffees at me and I had to toss the manual aside to grab them before they dropped. He barely waited until I had hold to lean into the equipment and sniff hard. “Dammit!” He reached for the fire extinguisher strapped to the wall, and swore harder when he realized it had somehow–mental smirk–discharged on its own.

He turned toward me. “Fire, Sergeant.” His voice was high and tight with adrenaline. “We need to get out of here.”

I dropped the coffee and hurried after him, just as I planned. We both reached for the alarm by the door, but I let him pull it. He was the one on duty, after all.

Outside, I slammed the door shut, then pushed him toward Ops. “I’ll make sure everyone’s out this way,” I yelled in his ear, pointing in the direction I needed to go.

He nodded. The blaring alarm made it hard to hear, and people were already rushing into the corridor toward the exits. No doubt they’d all made sure to lock away anything classified before seeing to their own safety. That was drilled into us over and over.

I pushed my way upstream, checking for stragglers as I went. The agency as an institution had betrayed me, but I’d met too many good people over the last eight years to wish them dead indiscriminately. By the time I reached the archives, everyone else was out and I had to pick the lock to get inside.

I resorted to fire down here, bolstered with a few chemicals I’d slipped into my pockets before I left the storage unit. No need to worry about collateral damage in the archives, housed in stone and steel to keep fire out–or in, in this case. This one didn’t have to look accidental. I wanted them to see my signature in the ashy ruins and recognize the hellfire they’d called down on themselves.

I grinned with a satisfied nod at the floor-to-ceiling flames raging across the room before I slammed the door shut and ran for an exit. The first strike in my war with the agency had to be counted a victory.

Nobody broke a deal with a Roxton.

 


Renee Stern once worked as a reporter for a community newspaper on the doorstep of the National Security Agency. Now a freelance writer on the opposite coast, her short fiction has appeared in Beneath Ceaseless Skies, and the anthologies Human Tales, Gears and Levers 3, and Looking Landwards, among others.





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