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Lost Boy
((Continued from))

Nika was and then she wasn’t, simple as that.

Upon activation the tree birthed light that might have been seen from space if you were looking.  ...and the dense canopy didn’t make everything aerial impossible.  The obsidian egg absorbed it all as was its design and gifted it to the being inside.  Purpose served, the encasement’s shell parted into slats starting at the top, which then folded over and over itself until it was again contained within the small pack.  The form within shifted forward and once the egg no longer had walls, poured bonelessly onto the forest floor.

The defib activated and her heart remembered it had a job once.  The pump restarted merrily like a dumb yellow dog locating a ball lost in tall grass.

Doc Freeman and Hatch’s spaz dart saw to it that Nika remained…pacified…until the VR program was ready to run.

Jorge hooked in with her as a guide while Doc and Suggs monitored and manipulated the program and Nika’s vitals externally.  The program itself had been meticulously built using real body and helmet cam footage from the actual mission all those years ago.


Nika blinked back with a short hiss of breath through her nose.  Her nearly black eyes took their time fine-tuning focus.  

“Now is not the time to lie on your ass.”  

The voice was one she’d not heard in a long while.  She swallowed around a dry throat and attempted to sit up but failed.

Fire.  Heat like she’d never known raced along her nerve endings.  Her vision briefly eclipsed before white suns alternated separate dawns.  She dared not breathe or make a sound.  In her head she screamed.  The wave passed as quickly as it appeared.  Bizarre.  The sensations left her breathless.

“We must move out of range!”  

The voice was urgent rather than mean.  He was right, she had to listen.  The warlord apparently had suicide drones, which were highly illegal, but then so was assassination.  

A massive weight exerted pressure, it seemed, over her entire form so that she could not localize anything.  Nika moved with great difficulty; every action was purposeful, deliberate and calculated.  Willpower alone forced her body to comply; muscle motor memory saw the movements actually happen.

The shocks came and went without warning.  Nika stumbled almost imperceptibly as the nerves in her knee flared to uselessness and her leg gave way.  The exoskeleton suit kept her from actually falling, taking up the slack when it sensed weakness.  The civilian version was worn by those with spinal afflictions; the military version kept a soldier mobile long after in-action wounds became incapacitating.  

Nika held her sidearm in a double grip both to support her weapon should one hand or the other fail and to give herself something to squeeze for the pain.  She was trying very hard not to crack teeth when the flares came…
Back in the real world the eUTV had lumbered to the evac point without incident.  It was an oddity having her crew so quiet behind her beyond scripted lines and status updates.  They were focused on their jobs, sure, but it was strange regardless.  She smiled, feeling proud of them and how far they’d come as a unit.  Still, they were missing a member…even if she was tied up three feet away.  Mistakes and consequences.

It sounded like the program was working.  Originally Doc was going to have to administer a concerning amount of experimental drugs for the restarts since there was only so much footage to play through on this one but as the kid kept passing out, that turned out to be unnecessary.  Testing, the next phase, only worked if the kid didn’t know she was being tested so surprise was essential.  The reality-altering serum reacted poorly to excessive amounts of knockout drugs and they didn’t want to keep bashing her over the head.  Of course it was more complicated than that but for brevity’s sake, here they were.  

“Restart,” Freeman said, eyes glued to his screen.

Suggs replied, “You’re sure?”

“Yes, you can’t fake out the monitoring equipment.”

“She okay?  That’s seven times now.”

“She’ll be fine, Sarge.  How are you doing?  Need a break?  I can take her out for a bit.”

“No, I’m fine.” Then  “…little queasy.”

“Sit tight, I’ll put a patch on to help with that.”

“Thanks Doc.”

“Five seconds?  I’ve got a bird with two heads I need to debug.”

“Yeah, you got it.”

So all-in-all, great.  With Hatch on temporary additional duty it fell to Akari to take up his slack.  She made sure everything was tied down, stowed and secured then signaled their recall transport.  30 seconds later they were in the air headed to an alpha site.

Good times.
So yeah, that was a weird 24 hours for Jacinda. And that was saying something! Sitting for hours inside a large drone that smelled like the bygone pizza delivery cars of enterprising teenagers was only the beginning of it. At least there was room for her to lay back and listen to Amelia's AI drone on about the situation. She got the basic gist of the situation. 

She'd have to see for herself, though. Sure. AIs did well as far as things went- figuring out what music she should listen to or what route to take. And probably other things as well. But she'd never believe that any artificial mind could assess the situation they was a human could. More particularly, the way she would do it.

And frankly, she wasn't all that impressed with the cheesy garbage the thing tried to play once the briefing was gone. It was surprisingly hard to convince the thing to stop playing the Trolls soundtrack over and over again. For reals, she was ready to kick out the bottom and jump out and leave Amelia to her fate for having subjected her to this. Almost, anyway.

The batcave or whatever wasn't better. Seriously, the kid had to be hopped up on candy most of the time. It wasn't like she was all hard-core goth or anything. But in comparison, she might as well have painted her face white, dressed in funeral lace, and read bad poetry while listening to Morissey (something she knew about only due to the whiney emo Atharim who had tried to impress her with his "depth". Aside from the put upon faux sensitivity of the music, the idea that an Atharim hunter of all things whined with the best of them only made her laugh. And no, it hadn't gone over well with him, that was for sure. Which only made it funnier.)

Anyway, after she met Nika's "alfred" Gillian, a chick who seriously needed to chill, it was into another transport...and another. 

Well, finally she arrive in the snow, bladder about to bursting. Funny how having to pee slowly tool over your brain until you couldn't think about anything else. Mentally, she added that to her list of interrogation techniques. It would work, she knew. She barely looked around to confirm she was alone before relieving herself behind the transport. Not like an AI would care. 

Now that she could think straight, she was able to get into hunter mode. It wasn't like she really knew Amelia. This wasn't a trivial trip, either. She wondered why she was doing this. Well, it wasn't like she was gonna leave the girl on her own. You didn't leave people behind, not if you knew they were there. She'd learned that first hand.

Sure it was a pain in the ass. But you did what you had to.

Plus, it was nice to be away from Moscow. The safe house was becoming to comfortable. Too much like a home. She knew she didn't have a home. Home was where she slept that night- or day or whatever. It certainly wasn't where she and...anyone else took turns cleaning up or making coffee or whatever. 

It was good to be busy. It was good to focus on something other than the ache that still twisted her stomach in knots. 

She stood there feeling the icy cold wind blowing around her. Ignoring as best she could, she focused, instead, on the slight cold at her booted feet, concentrating on the sensation so that she felt each toe, the ball of her foot, the soft padding of her arch and the heel wrapped in soft wool socks. Slowly, her attention widened up her legs, feeling shins and calves warmly hugged in leggings and snow pants, up her legs past knees and thighs and hips, each widening encompassing more and more of her body. At her chest, she went down each arm to her finger tips, then finally to the top of her covered head. Her entire body was attuned now, her breathing slow and steady despite the cold, consciousness clear of any worry. Well, she didn't see dark eyes in her mind, anyway. So it was good.

The calm and focus stayed with her as she opened her eyes and began to expand outward in small but ever expanding circles, letting the snow covered land come to her, listening for every shift or movement, smelling the cold and ice and hint of trees and smoke, eyes searching out everything. 

The Droid has said Amelia had been near this spot. She would use the tracker Gillian had given her in a moment. But she had no interest in walking blindly into a dangerous situation. This only took moments, but it was always worth it.

Satisfied, Jacinda pulled the tracker and touched the screen, still watching the surroundings. She'd expected an immediate ping. Instead, the device just kept repeating it was searchint, widening it's radius. 

She narrowed her eyes and eased her gun from its holster with her other hand. She was still open as she crouched low to present a smaller profile in case she was being watched.
Silence stretched onward around him.  Light filtered through the dense canopy overhead and dappled the air in warm hues.  Snow too had made its way through bare trees whose branches reached toward the heavens like a clawed hand’s last desperate extension.  

The slight opening among the naked trunks, curiously, was bare.  A neat lane of ground flowed from a gnarled tree a full twenty feet away; no snow, bone dry as though it was summer on the plains.  Odd indeed.  Certainly not nature’s witchcraft.

Normal sounds of a forest returned.  Hatch waited ten minutes past nature’s return.  Chirps, squeaks, rustles of foragers once more at ease.  He called the obsidian egg once more into being; this time a half-shell.  Into the vessel went spent fibrous batteries, various tufts of garment sacrificed in the name of a rescue or escape, a tough over-suit…a mask and helmet bomb-scorched and broken by more than a million volts twice-over.  Anything at all encountered that was part of their target’s dismembered kit went into the urn.  Though he left the microdrones dead where they’d fallen.  

Five minutes to deadline Hatch keyed into the device’s system and set a timer.  No one had showed; the kid was alone and probably had been talking to another drone.  Either way he didn’t give a rip.  

The device’s aperture walls grew upward in neat increments as the hover-bike sped away above the snow.  

Five more minutes passed.  The timer finished its run.  The trigger concealed within the gnarled tree activated and, on the last charge, birthed the light of the sun.  Too bright to see, the nearly tangible beam of nearly three million volts shot into the egg.  Was absorbed.  The light again seemed to linger in the air well after power had cut.  The device folded itself into a pack that served as a base for what little remained.  Most of the fabric annihilated into nothingness; what survived of the suit was too delicate to handle.  A broken and brittle mask lay half buried within a pile of ash. An end and a beginning at once.

Hatch, NPC
Despite her heavy snow boots and thick socks, the cold from the snow covered geound crept up her leg with each minute of stillness. Crouching low to the ground, constricting circulation didn't help either.

But she banished the discomfort away- at least for a bit. She would need her legs here in a bit. Be nice if they worked and all.

The quiet of the area felt thick, the natural sounds of the forested hills growing stronger. After ten minutes she figured she'd had enough and was about to stand, when movement down below caught her attention. It was right where the last ping from Amelia's wallet had come.  X marks the spot. The camo was good. It took some focus before the shape finally stood out from the background. A guy- or a large woman- moving about carefully, as if creeping around trying to stay hidden from that X. 

So is that where Amelia was? She needed to get down there and see. Preferably without getting Amelia killed. Crouched low, she began making her way slowly down the side of the hill. It was not the quickest way to do it. But she didn't know the situation. Only a fool rushed in without knowing. And having been such a fool before, she had learned her lesson.

As she moved, she kept watch. He stepped back a distance after a bit, seemed to touch some sort of device in his hand or on his wrist- hard to saw which- and then the was a loud clap and thunder. The place where the ping had come was now gone. Or rather, a gaping hole appeared, smoke lazily rising up into the sky.

The drop in her stomach nearly put her ass in the snow. She stared at the open empty patch of ground, unthinking for just a moment. Later, she told herself. Grieve later. Find out what happened first.

She waited again until she once again saw movement. She drew her staves and fingered on the voltage switch. Carefully and quietly, she worked her way down. This price would give her answers.

Crouching behind a sparse bush, she readied herself, before rushing to close the few yards distance between them. One stave swung at his legs while the other plunging down toward where his chest would be, ends already sparking, ready to deliver a nice tasty jolt of electricity to this asshole.

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