Curveball Issue 24: Triple Helix

Part 12: Circumscription

“Good news and bad news,” Street Ronin says.

“Yeah?” Jenny peers over his shoulder, staring down at the screen on his ruggedized laptop. She’s a little relieved he decided to do the work himself, because she finds using it frustrating. It doesn’t come close to the power of her own rig.

On the other hand, my rig won’t resist energy weapon fire…

“Well it looks like their delete protocol started with the most important files first, so that’s bad. But something interrupted the process, so I’m going through copying all the half-empty and corrupted directories first.”

“So at least we know where to look,” Jenny says.

Street Ronin nods. “That’s the good news. The bad news is, we’re copying half-empty directories and corrupted files.”

“That’s not so bad. Not all corrupted data is created equal. With the right tools you can recover almost anything.”

“With the right tools, and with time.” Street Ronin shakes his head. “It’s the time I’m worried about. There’s a lot of stuff to go through here. I don’t think I have access to the raw processing power I’d want to chew through so much junk.”

“Maybe I can find some backups,” Jenny says. “If they left in a hurry, they might have overlooked the backups.”

“That’d be nice,” Street Ronin says. “Be careful. The place looks empty, but don’t assume it is.”

“OK, Dad,” Jenny says, and starts wandering down the aisles.

* * *

“The schematic says the medical wing is at the lowest level,” CB says. “So we start there.”

Agent Grant raises an eyebrow. “You want to start at the bottom? You don’t want to work our way down?”

“Not enough time,” CB says. “Medical is our best bet.”

“Time for what? Best bet for what?”

CB doesn’t reply.

“Hey, Old Man…” Grant’s voice takes on a subtle, needling edge. “I appreciate the whole man of mystery/lead people by their nose act as much as anyone, but it’d help if I knew what I was looking for.”

“Can’t say,” CB says.

“You don’t know? Well that’s just—”

CB whirls around and stares Grant in the eye. “I didn’t say that. Listen to me very carefully. I. Can’t. Say.”

“You can’t say…” For the very short time CB has known him, Agent Grant hasn’t done much to give the impression of being particularly thoughtful, but there are wheels turning in that head.

“You heard me.”

The wheels turn faster. Something clicks, and Agent Grant shrugs, his expression smoothing into one of casual disinterest. “OK, Boss. Travers said we could trust you, so that’s what I’m gonna do. But that’s a hell of an NDA you signed.”

CB laughs sharply. “Come on, G-Man. Let’s get this done.”

* * *

The backups won’t be stored in the server room, of course—that would be stupid, and whatever these guys may be, Jenny’s pretty sure they aren’t stupid. She goes back into the Mission Control Room—or whatever it is—and calls up the schematic Street Ronin found.

The safest thing to do is store them off site, but they probably didn’t have that luxury. If you’re going to store them on site, you need a room that’s isolated from everything else. Something that would survive if the whole place burned down. A vault…

There’s one room on this floor that looks like it might fit the bill. The schematic doesn’t give much in the way of details, but it’s at the far end of the complex, separated from everything else by a long hallway. That could be it.

She ducks back into the server room and finds Street Ronin still hunched over the tiny laptop. “I think I found backup storage. Back in a sec.”

“Hold on a moment,” Street Ronin says. “I’ll go with you.”

“Nah, it’s OK. I’m just going to make sure it’s the right place. I’ll come back as soon as I have it figured out—I’ll need help transporting the backups anyway.”

Street Ronin’s gaze drifts back to the laptop. “…OK. I think I’m almost finished here anyway. Be careful, all right?”

“You already said that,” Jenny says, and heads off to the far side of the complex.

* * *

The room is full of coffins.

They’re caskets, actually—hermetically sealed caskets, like incubation chambers. But the first thing that leaps into CB’s mind when he enters the room is holy shit it’s full of coffins, and even when they discover that most of the people inside are still alive he can’t shake it. A room full of coffins, all numbered, three occupants dead—and from the looks of their bodies, their deaths were not at all pleasant.

“This is sick,” Grant says. He’s not smirking right now. He’s not doing much of anything, other than staring in shock at the coffins and their contents.

“Let’s check the other rooms,” CB says.

The second room is almost identical to the first. Ten victims dead this time, all looking roughly like the three victims in the previous room. The third room is more of the same, but only one survivor.

CB looks down at the unconscious form of the lone survivor in the third room. Test Subject #14.

“This is all kinds of fucked up,” Grant says. “Is this your NDA?”

CB shakes his head. “It isn’t here. I’ll have to check the next level.”

“What about these people? We can’t leave ’em.”

“We don’t have a choice,” CB says. “We can’t let them out of those things until we know what happened to them. They could be infected with a super-virus and kill us all the moment we cracked the seal… or maybe their immune systems were stripped away, and we kill them the minute they’re exposed to us. We don’t know. And we can’t wheel them out until the A team takes care of that golem.”

“Right,” Grant says. “Well today’s a great day to be one of the good guys.”

“Come on, G-man. We need to get to the holding cells.”

“G-man,” Grant mutters. “You know that’s the FBI, right?”

CB shrugs. “I always called Travers a G-Man.”

“Didn’t you also break his jaw?” Grant asks.

Let’s go.” CB tries to keep his impatience in check and fails. “We don’t have a lot of time.”

Grant forces himself not to ask the obvious question, shrugs, and follows CB to the next floor.

* * *

As she peers down the long hallway separating the backup vault from the rest of the complex, Jenny sees that the reinforced steel vault door is open at a ninety-degree angle, and that an armed guard stands in the doorway. He’s not one of the battle-armored soldiers they fought earlier: he’s dressed in a black commando uniform and body armor, and wears a gas mask. He’s armed with an assault rifle—a good one, from what she can tell, but nothing on the level of those energy carbines.

He looks like one of the people that attacked Dad’s house.

She ducks out of sight the moment she sees him, and for a few tense seconds she holds her breath, trying to hear whether or not he reacts. The seconds pass, the guard makes no unusual noises, and she exhales slowly.

There are sounds coming from the hall: people talking. She can’t tell exactly what they’re saying, because they’re keeping their voices low, but she’s pretty sure it isn’t small talk.

They stayed behind to get the backups. No, that doesn’t make sense. They stayed behind to destroy the backups.

She weighs the options in her head. It’d be good to have Street Ronin here, but if they actually destroy the backups before she gets back…

You’re a metahuman now, Jenny. Time to step up. What would your great-grandfather do?

He would stop the bad guys. That’s what he’d do.

Jenny takes a slow, steadying breath, then steps out into the hall.

* * *

“So this is, what, some kind of detention center?” Agent Grant looks around the room, clearly not impressed. “Looks more like my office building.”

They’re standing in what appears to be a waiting room of some sort. Cheap carpet covers the floors, cheap plastic chairs line the walls, and a receptionist’s desk stands in the center of the room. Four office doors line the back wall, and heavier doors sit to each side.

“Not quite what I expected,” CB admits. He walks up to the receptionist’s desk and starts flipping through the logs. “Oh, but look—Richter was here. He actually signed in.”

“Seriously?” Grant wanders up and looks at the ledger CB is reading. “J. Richter. Well I’ll be damned. He checked in this morning. Don’t see a sign-out time, though.”

“Yeah…” CB stares at the name scrawled beneath J. Richter. “Looks like he wasn’t alone.”

“Doyle?” Grant looks at CB. “Any reason I should know that name?’

CB shakes his head. “Not really. I guess he’s my arch-enemy.”

Grant snorts. “I thought that was Liberty.”

“My first arch-enemy,” CB says. “Nasty piece of work. He was a Neo-Nazi skinhead back in the day. Now he’s… I don’t know what he is. Still an asshole.”

“You know how to pick ’em,” Grant says. “What’s he do?”

“Makes people sick,” CB says. “Also he has lots of weird magic runes tattooed all over him. Heals him real fast. Look, if you start to feel sick, dizzy, get a headache, even if you think maybe you’re going to sneeze—do your teleporting thing. Get out, get help. Look for Zero. She seems to be his Achilles’ heel.”

“OK.” Grant pulls out his service pistol and loads a fresh magazine. “I’m ready when you are, chief.”

CB looks down at the log again. “They checked into Cell E. Come on, that’s through here.”

The hall is long and narrow. The cell doors are reinforced, with biometric keypads set into the wall beside them. Each cell door has a large letter stenciled on it: A, B, C, D, E, and F on the left; G, H, I, J, K, and L on the right. Between each pair of cells is a much simpler door with OBSERVATION stenciled on the front.

They hear the hum of a generator. Looking down the hall, they actually see the generator—not your standard gas-powered generator that you’d get from a hardware store, this runs quieter and cleaner—useful when you’re underground and proper ventilation is a concern. The generator sits right outside Cell E. The door to Cell E is open, and a rugged cable leads from the generator into the room.

CB looks at Grant and motions for him to hang back. Grant nods, and crouches, gun at the ready. CB slowly draws both of his pistols, and creeps down the hall.

He passes Cells B, H. D, I. He stops at the generator and peers around the corner, into Cell E.

There it is: the Prodigy Harness.

It’s pushed against the far wall and set upright, like a sarcophagus. The top half is transparent, giving him a clear view of the victim trapped within. Whoever he was once, he’s barely recognizable as alive. His skin stretches tight across his face, his muscles are atrophied so severely that CB can see every contour of the skull beneath. His mouth hangs open, and a long line of dried spittle trails down one corner. His eyebrows are gone, and his hair is nearly gone—only a few strands at the top and a few tufts around the ears remain. His eyes are open, but they do not see. Occasionally he blinks.

CB steps into the room. “I found it, Agent Grant.”

A few seconds later Agent Grant appears in the doorway. “You found wha—oh Christ, what the fuck is that?”

“That,” CB says, “is my NDA.”

“Jesus, what happened to—what did they do to—who is that?”

“A guy named Horace Preston,” CB says. “He’s a weather manipulator.”

Grant looks at what’s left of the man. “The thing he’s in. Is that what I think it is?”

CB nods. “Prodigy Harness.”

“Fuck. Fuck. I thought we confiscated all those. Travers is going to shit a brick.” Agent Grant pauses for a moment. “Yep. A brick.”

“Look, Agent Grant, I don’t know the specifics of how you came to be involved in this, but I gotta know where you stand.”

“I don’t understand,” Grant says.

“Preston is causing the storm,” CB says. “Those bastards left him behind because they don’t care what he’s doing, and if we don’t stop him the storm is gonna wipe Farraday City and a good chunk of Georgia off the map.”

“So unplug it.” Grant looks at the cable running from the generator, attaching to the base of the harness. “No more harness, no more storm, right?”

CB sighs. “No. The harness already did its part: it wound him up and turned him loose. If he wasn’t this far gone we could probably give him a new command—tell him to stop—but look at him. All it’s doing now is keeping him alive, and it’s doing a piss-poor job at that.”

“Yeah,” Grant says. “Yeah.”

There’s a brief silence as CB and Grant stare at the desiccated man in the harness. Finally Grant turns to CB, expression grave.

“You want me to take a walk, chief?”

CB hesitates, then nods once.

“OK…” Sympathy flashes across Grant’s face as he turns away from the harness. “Guess I’ll go find the others and tell ’em about the people we can save. Back in fifteen.” His outline fuzzes out for a second, then he disappears.

CB stares at the empty space where Grant stood moments before, then forces himself to turn back to the harness. He walks over to it and releases the electronic latch that keeps the top closed.

“Sorry Horace. For all I know you were an asshole… but you didn’t deserve this.”

He opens the lid. Pressure releases with a hiss, and the first thing CB notices is the stench rising out of the harness. Whatever it did to the man, however it’s keeping him alive, he still smells like a rotting corpse.

CB’s stomach churns, and he takes a moment to collect himself. That’s when he feels a sharp, stabbing pain in his gut, and the next thing he knows he’s on the floor, swimming in sweat, shivering with cold, trying to keep the world from spinning away.

Oh… oh fuck.

He tries to get to his hands and knees, but every time he moves he loses his sense of equilibrium. He barely manages to turn his head down before he vomits. He shudders as another wave of cold runs through him. The pain in his gut increases, and he curls into a ball for relief.

Someone steps into the room. CB forces his eyes open, and sees the blurred form of a man in canvas pants and heavy work boots walk up to him. The man stops in front of him, kneels, and grabs CB by the hair, forcing his head up. CB recognizes him immediately.

“Heya CB,” Plague says. “Glad you decided to stop by. Kinda hoped you might.”

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