House of Cards: Chapter 6


Rikk knocked on the door. "Tim?" he said, quietly, to make sure he didn't wake up anyone else on the floor. There were signs on peoples' doors mentioning this, and the possible consequences of such an action. Nobody was in the dorm, of course; a two-week break from classes was too much to miss. But still. It was polite. There wasn't any answer. He knocked again, a little louder. Tim slept late, of course—he slept so late it actually warped space-time itself and became early—but he also slept pretty lightly. A knock like this should have him up in no time. Rikk tried the door. It was unlocked. "Tim?" he repeated as he came inside. "I got your call—well, actually, the voicemail got it, since I was still asleep, and—" He didn't have a chance to get any further, because Tim was lying on the floor, skin clammy and eyes glazed over. He was barely breathing. Rikk stopped himself from shouting excitedly and forced himself calm. He knelt at Tim's side and checked for a pulse, which was weak but still there. Tim still clutched his cell phone in one hand, so tight Rikk couldn't pull his fingers away. He remembered everything he'd ever heard about first aid. Find some smelling salts to wake him up—except Tim was probably inured to even the most stifling of smells. Get the head down, so the blood flows—except Rikk was sure he couldn't lift Tim all by himself. It was a two- or three-man job. Will and Kath were out, obviously. Rumy was probably still asleep, and it was doubtful he'd be able to get her to even touch Tim. There wasn't anyone else on campus he could trust enough. So that left Shanna—who was about as likely as Rumy to get within nose-shot of Tim's room. But she was the only one around, and she was certainly awake by now. Rikk pulled out his cell phone and dialed. "You've got to be kidding," said Shanna upon entering the room. (Well, to be perfectly precise, the first thing she said was along the lines of an unintelligible gurgle, wearing an expression of disgusted shock and a hand clapped over her nose and mouth.) Rikk shook his head. "'Fraid not. He's out cold." "Oh, lovely. I get to spend my morning with the passed-out pervert. Why didn't you just call for a doctor? Doesn't the campus have somebody?" "Probably," said Rikk, "but I think this has something to do with that." He pointed at the desk, where a single monitor was still alive, attached to a jumble of electronics. Shanna peered at it. There were only two lines of text—the first said '2' on the left, and '2' on the right, and the second said '2+2' on the left and '4' on the right. A cursor blinked on the third line. "Well, well," Shanna said. "I always suspected as much." "Suspected what?" "That Tim got his jollies from basic math," she said, grinning so wide her molars showed. Rikk sighed the kind of lung-deep sigh that only the very put-upon, or marathoners, can manage. "It's something more than that, Shanna. He was working on a system he'd taken from a computer company—it's a long story—" "Well, Kath told me part of it before she left." Which wasn't strictly true. Kath had told her everything that had transpired the evening before she and Will left for Denver. "But the gist of it is, that little black box—" he gestured at the object in question "—is something very, very complicated. Tim and Guth were up all night trying to figure it out." Shanna, whose own computer had a negative resale value and was used mainly as a coaster, snorted derisively. "So Tim's passed out from snapping circuits together all night? Are you sure he's not just suffering from caffeine withdrawl?" "Positive. If anything, it'd be an overdose. Right now we need to get him up and talking. I've got a suspicion about that box, and right now he's the only person I know who could confirm it." Shanna blinked. "And—though this is probably secondary—we need to make sure he's all right. Correct?" she said, mustering up all the acid in her blood and spitting it into her voice. Rikk looked embarrassed. "Well, yeah. I mean, yes, that's what we need to…I…yeah, you're right." Impressive, thought Shanna. From cold-blooded to sheepish in two seconds flat. Kath said he was acting strangely… Rikk shook his head. "We need to get him up on the bed and let his head hang down. Blood flow. I'll take his arms, you take his legs." Shanna went as close to Tim's feet as she dared, which was not close. The sneakers alone made Los Angeles air seem like perfume. She wrapped her hands around his ankles. Her fingertips just barely touched. "Ready?" Rikk asked. "On three. One, two, thr—" The rest of the word was obscured by a blizzard of snapping sounds from their joints as they both strained to lift the one thing man was not meant to move. It was like trying to tip a house on its side. On Jupiter. Shanna rubbed her shoulder, which now felt like it was in two pieces, and grimaced. "That was the second most painful act of my life." Rikk bit his lip. I hate being straight man… "What's the first?" "Touching Tim in the first place. There, I've said it. Now can I go swallow a bottle of aspirin?" "Nani?" Rikk and Shanna both paused. Neither one wanted to turn to look at the door first. They ended up looking simultaneously. Rumy was standing there, half-awake, her eyes still ringed with sleep like crop circles, in a slip that looked curiously normal. "Where's Tim?" Rumy said. "I…his call woke me up, and…" Her voice trailed off as she saw Tim prostrate on the floor. Her eyes stretched to dimensions of disbelief previously unknown. Rikk looked down at Tim's hand, still holding the phone. So that's who else he was calling… Rumy looked to Rikk. "Is he all right?" "I—I think so. He's still breathing, but we need to get him awake…can you help us get him on the bed?" Shanna snorted again. Rumy had arms like breadsticks. She probably couldn't lift a cup of coffee. Rumy went over to kneel Tim's side, and with an expression of obvious distaste, she placed one hand under his knees and the other under his upper back. She strained, her back arching momentarily… Focus. Center. All mass has a balance point, all things have a fulcrum… Closing her eyes, Rumy let herself, her muscles, remember her training—lifting blocks of concrete, bags of sand—this is no different— Her teeth gritting sparks off each other, Rumy lifted Tim up and set him on the bed. She breathed deeply, wiped a thin layer of sweat off her forehead, noticed that neither Rikk nor Shanna was capable of speech, and grinned sheepishly. "Training," she said, weakly. "Lots of training." Rikk blinked in the manner of one who does not expect to see the same image before and after the blink. "Right," he said, uncertainly. "Well, that's…that's good. He…he should be fine." He went over to the computer, or rather the table blanketed with computers and computer parts. The little black box was in the center of a clear spot, still wired up. On a whim, Rikk tapped the keys, typed in 3+3. The screen showed a six. He tried 24856375+548432148, and got 573288523 before he could blink. He typed in pi. Without even pausing, the computer spat out a decimal which filled every screen on the table in an instant. And kept going. The numbers kept rolling up the screen, faster than any human eye could even register. Faster than any math prodigy or calculator. Faster than a supercomputer. Faster than the world…faster than…faster… The screens folded into dots of light, and went dark. Rumy stared at the plug in her hand. Rikk shook his head. "What the…what was that?" "That," said Shanna, a bit awed, "was you, being hypnotized by the computer. What did you see, anyway? You were drooling just then." "I saw…" Rikk forced his tongue to move. "I saw the answer. Pi…it goes on forever…it's an infinity of numbers, just to get to the final, actual number…and I saw it. It was heading there." He stared at the blank screens. "It…that thing…it's dangerous. It's a threat to everything." "Kwa…" Tim croaked, from the bed. They all rushed over to him. The color—what there was to begin with—was slowly returning to his face, though his eyes were still glassy. His lips moved convulsively. "Kwa…" he said again, tried to go on. "Quaint?" suggested Shanna. "Quantity?" offered Rikk. "Kawaii?" proposed Rumi. They stared at her. She shrugged. "It makes sense…" Tim inhaled spontaneously. "Quantum," he said, and fell silent again. Rikk stood up. "Quantum?" He frowned. Rikk had very little grounding in mathematics, physics, the computational arts, and in fact most everything that required the use of calculators. And 'quantum' fell very neatly into most of those categories, and thus defied explanation. It was some sort of concept, wasn't it, that atoms were smaller than anyone thought…or that they were constructed of something themselves… In any case, it was something for Tim to worry about. And thus the priority was getting Tim awake. Getting him up. The black box sat on the table, watching. * * * The ripping-silk sound of the laser caught across the edge of Jones' hearing as the blast slammed into his chest with the brute force of an asteroid. He was thrown backwards ten feet, into the railing on the catwalk, and slid onto the floor. White came over and smiled down at him. "Good morning, Mr. Jones." Jones moved his lips. "Mr. White," he croaked. White held out his gun, dangled it before Jones' eyes. "Stun setting, Mr. Jones. I did not want to kill you just yet." Jones tried to move his arms, couldn't. "Dammit," he said, "stop toying with me." White grinned. "Oh, come now, Mr. Jones. I believe I deserve it. I am, after all, the victor in this little contest of wills. I hold the light in my hands, and I—" The lights flickered. White frowned. Jones smiled. A flurry of sparks came from a wall conduit, the lights flickered again, then died. The emergency lights came on, deep crimson. White turned around quickly. Jones' shot had gone wide, over his left shoulder—into a wall monitor— The monitor was showing a wash of multicolored static, the keypad was flaring with sparks. Jones nodded his head towards his gun. "A pulsed laser shot," he said, "keyed to a frequency in the F.I.B.'s mainframe. All the computers are down, main power is offline. I'm the only one with the reset command. And I have to be alive to use it." He showed his incisors. "Now, what was that about being the victor?" White punched him precisely between the eyes, and everything went black. * * * Kath has a list, in her bedroom, of all the times in her life that she's been completely and utterly speechless. It's a very short list. But, she reflected as she looked up, it was about to become longer by exactly one. The room with the weapon was unbelievably massive, stretching several hundred feet into the air. Some disjointed fraction of Kath's brain did its damnedest to analyze this, because she was sure the complex was only a hundred feet underground to begin with, and it didn't seem like the floor sloped down at all… Her brain gave up in light of certain other considerations. In the little light in the room Kath could just make out the shapes and characters of the various objects present in the room, if she strained her eyes. From the wall sprouted a dozen chains, each one thick as both her arms together, stretching across the floor, and up, up into the blackness at the top of the room. (In the back of the room, pounding was heard at the door.) Some of those gigantic chains terminated in equally gigantic bands of iron, wrapped around…around… There was a general impression of teeth each like a trio of claymores, muscles like a thousand knotted steel cords, and a presence like a mountain in downtown Peoria. "Of course…" said Will, with a dry mouth, "the weapon." It was, naturally, a dragon. Five hundred feet if it was an inch, skin like the dry touch of a rattlesnake, mottled and dark, but with scales the size of palm tree leaves, back legs like redwoods, ending in claws infinitely razor-sharp and big around as Will, front legs that had three-fingered hands and an attached thumb, a knotted-rope neck that would be a hundred feet when extended, but now bent upon itself in this tiny cavern, and a head that defied all similes, pointed and enormous, flaring ridges and noseholes, whiplike tendrils, snake-bits hanging from the chin and sloping down the back of the spine, and eyes the size of medicine balls, intricate and swirling with color and brilliance, centered around a single pinprick hole of deepest black, like a drowning pool in a Monet garden. The part of Kath's brain that still worked gained a sudden understanding. A weapon, something more powerful than the A-bomb, hell, than a hundred thousand A-bombs, a weapon that could depopulate whole continents, infinitely suited for war and destruction. A weapon currently being bid upon by a laundry list of terrorists, gangsters, militants, and psychopaths—in other words, the people most likely to use it. The greatest destructive force on Earth, all the more terrible because man did not create it. (The pounding at the door stopped, hesitant.) In the dark heights of the room, the dragon bent its head down, its eyes flaring and brilliant. It blinked, languidly, like water, focusing on Kath and Will. And then the pain of the dream that morning flowed into their minds again, only a thousand times more, and a thousand times harder. Kath dimly remembers herself screaming, dimly remembers falling to the floor and clutching at her ears, dimly remembers Will arching his spine and roaring like all the minions of Hades were tearing at his flesh. Through the torrent of pain, through the flashing stars of light blazing like comets across their retinas, through the screams both of body and of mind that echoed in their ears, there was a single thought being burned into their brains like a white-hot brand: I am. Kath gasped for air; her lungs were burning. She dug her nails into the rock under her hands. The dragon tilted its head, staring at them both. You came, it said. I called to you, and you came. Will's voice rasped out across the room, "Why?" I need you, the thought streaking through their heads like a freight train. I need to be freed. So you will free me. The pain stopped then, abruptly, leaving Kath and Will gasping like fish on rocks at low tide. It was still there, that mental pressure, like the echo of a headache, but much fainter than what it was a moment ago. The dragon looked up, behind Kath. Go now, it said. Return quickly. They turned around. The edge of the door was glowing white-hot—some kind of laser, burning through. They were already halfway around. Kath and Will stumbled to their feet. "But how?" Kath said. "There's only one exit…" The dragon pulled aside one membranous wing from the wall. An entrance, carved out of the rock, big enough for a person, with stairs leading up. They have left it unsealed, the dragon said, to provide me air. They used it as an exit as well, for a time. "But not any more?" asked Will. The dragon opened its jaw, showing far more teeth than were strictly necessary. No, it said, not any more. The laser's edges met, the door fell open. Three men in heavy black armor came through, firing some kind of rifle. The dragon reared up… A gout of flame, a liquid stream of heat, spouted from its mouth over the three men. Even at a distance, Kath could still feel the heat, like an oven, like a whole damn bakery. The guards stumbled back, their armor—apparently made for just this purpose—still smoking. Two of them fiddled with their guns and began firing at the dragon; the third took aim at Kath and Will. "Come on," said Will, pulling Kath towards the exit. The dragon flamed again—they could feel the wash of heat at their backs—one of the men was thrown against the wall, hard—six more came through the other entrance— Go! the dragon mentally shouted. A piercing whistle filled the air, an ultrasonic whine, and every one of the guards fell to the ground, screaming. Kath felt her head throb in a sympathetic ache. Then they were running up the stairs, screams echoing, following them, up a thousand steps, air vents on both sides, until they hit a flat metal panel, Will shoved, full of adrenaline, it fell aside, and outside air flew in. The panel closed behind them as they came out—it was camouflaged, looking exactly like the surrounding rock. Will looked in all directions, his head swiveling. "The car," he said. "Where's the car?" Kath touched her temple. She could still feel the ache of the dragon's mental pressure, but lighter, easier…it was like a compass, pointing the way downward. She could still see it, chained up in that room, bands around its limbs… Will tapped her on the shoulder. "Meditative stupors are all well and good, Kath, but not while we're standing above enough firepower to level continents." Kath shook her head. Something about the chains… "Right," she said, uncertainly. "The car." Will tapped his earpiece. "Wally," he said, "you there?" There was static for a second, then Wally's voice came through. "I'm back," he said. "Something just blacked out my communications…I'm rerouting this through a backup satellite connection." "Tell us later, Wally. Where's the car?" "From your position…due south, about thirty meters. I'll disengage the camo." The car was there, just as they hoped. They camo'd it as something completely inconspicuous, saw no one following on the road, but pulled into a service garage in Chevette and changed the camouflage, just to be safe. And when they finally got back to the hotel, they locked the door in every single way possible and called Rikk on the secure line. He picked up on the first ring. "Hello?" he said, rather tersely. "Rikk? It's Kath. We've got problems." "Everyone's got problems." "Forget philosophy, Rikk. We found the weapon." Kath inhaled. "It's a dragon." The line was quiet. "Are you sure?" he said after a moment. "Well, it wasn't a five-hundred foot winged sewer rat, was it?" Will stared at Kath. She didn't notice. Her voice…it was almost hysterical on that last sentence. "This thing," she continued, "it contacted us—called us—in our dreams. In our dreams, Rikk. It wants us to free it. I can still feel it in my head." Will could feel it as well. Only it had a direction this time, a beacon, a compass. Pointing the way back to the source. "It wants out, Rikk. It wants to get out and kill something. So either we let it out and it burns the world, or we let it be and they sell it off." "Or you kill it." There was a silence then, an aggressive silence which suddenly butted its way into the conversation and held every mouth closed. "What?" said Will. "That's what Jones told us to do, isn't it? Prevent the weapon from being sold, by any means necessary—including destruction of the weapon itself. If we must, we must." Kath suddenly sagged back, deflated. She looks…tired, thought Will. "But that's…we can't just kill it. It's a, a dragon…" "This is what the F.I.B. does. They remove threats. We remove threats." Will grabbed the phone. "You're damn right they do, Rikk. And we've had to break into the F.I.B. because they were trying to remove us! Jones signed us up precisely because we weren't the F.I.B.!" "He signed us up because he saw we had potential." "Yeah? Potential for what? Potential to be like him?" Kath snarled. "It's already happened, Rikk. You're turning into Jones. You've been just as cold as he has, just as heartless—ever since—" "When, Kath?" Kath glared at the phone. "Ever since when, Kath?" Kath opened her mouth to answer, and was interrupted by a scuffle from the other end of the line. Rikk came back on a moment later. "Sorry about that," he said, "but Tim's just woken up again." "Woken up? What the hell is—" "He was in a coma for a little while, but he's back up again. Apparently the computer did something to him." "Wh—" "Theoretically, it's a long story. Tell it when you get back." Rikk looked up. Tim was sitting up now, dazedly rubbing his head, his eyes still slightly glazed. "Whoa," he said, unhelpfully. "That was a trip." "But you didn't go anywhere." Tim stared at Rumy, who was either completely, innocently ignorant or very good at faking it. "Tell y'what," he said, "ask Alisin sometime 'bout her medicine cabinet." He looked up, and noticed everyone in the room. "Rikk!" he shouted, and ran over to a point three inches from Rikk's face. "Rikk, that box—it's trouble, it's all quantum—we gotta do somethin' to it, it's too big—" "Just a minute," Rikk said into the phone. "What is it, Tim?" "That box, th' computer. It's—it's powerful, so powerful—'s bigger than anything else. I gotta study it, take it apart." Tim rubbed his head. "'S'it just me, or 'm I not makin' any sense?" "Yeah, and your grammar's collapsing faster than a black hole," interjected Shanna from across the room. Tim, not noticing, sat down heavily on the bed. "Th' box…I gotta stay here. 'S big, so big…" Rumy walked over and sat next to him, mumbling something calming and putting her arm on his shoulder. The most surprised expression in the room was on her face. Rikk frowned, an expression which came rather strangely to his face. Tim was obviously still dazed by what he'd seen—or done—but still lucid, lucid enough to try to warn them about this box. And Rikk still had a feeling about the box. At the same time, Will and Kath were obviously encountering difficulties in Denver. The smart thing to do would be to provide backup…but Tim needed to stay here and work on the box. And the box was somehow also crucial, important not only to them but also to the people they stole it from. Rikk looked out the window. Monumental snow drifts were forming outside now. The snow was still falling. Something vaguely creepy about snow falling in Billberg. Divided assets. We are a team, he thought. "Rumy, Shanna," he said. They looked up. Rikk started to bite his lip, and quickly stopped himself. "I'm going to Denver." He took a deep breath. "One of you needs to come with me, and someone needs to stay behind to watch Tim." "Wonderful," said Shanna. "Stay here with a basketcase in a dorm room, or jump into the arms of certain peril, not to mention a mythological beast that has no business even existing around here." Tim looked up sharply. "Th' box! Gotta protect the…the box…" Rumy looked at him, then at Shanna, and finally at Rikk. "I believe…it would be better if I stayed here. Timothy is still disoriented and needs a…a familiar presence. And I think that combat skills will not be needed in Denver so much as the ability to…blend in." Shanna threw up her hands. "Fine. Good. Denver. I always wanted to travel." Rikk lifted the phone again. "Kath? Will? You still there?" "For a while, anyway."

"It's been decided. Shanna and I are coming to Denver to join you."

"We don't need a babysitter, Rikk." Kath's voice was unusually hostile, Rikk noted.

"Not as babysitters. Backup. Things could go wrong."

"Plenty of time left for that." A beat. "If you're coming, come quick." "It'll take time to get the tickets organized." "I meant what I said." The phone clicked. Rikk flipped the phone closed. It had gone as well as he could have hoped. * * * White rubbed his right hand—still sore—as he rushed into central command. Dozens of tech personnel were rushing around the computers. All of them were from his section. The takeover would have been perfect… "What do we have?" he shouted, pretty much at random.

"It's not good, sir," a techie called from across the room. "The mainframe is down, along with most of the major communication lines. We're piecing together what programs we can, but it'll take us days to get any sort of functionality. As for full control…" He trailed off.

White growled, the sound beginning low in his throat. "What is working?"

"Satellite communications can be strung together. Backup memory files are at 34% recovered. The Unconscious Collective is still under control. Hangers, armories, and equipment…all under lockdown." The techie tapped some keys. "Most of the higher-tier programs are offline…"

"Jones," White said to himself. "Jones has to pay for this. Jones will pay…"

He turned to an open console, fingers snapping at the keys. His personal programs were down across the board—tracking, monitoring, and surveillance.

No. Wait. Internal communication filtering was still up.

And a conversation was taking place.

White opened the channel. "—en decided," said Rikk Oberf. "Shanna and I are coming to Denver to join you."

White leaned back in his chair. Fortune still smiles.

Jones will pay.

Chapter 2

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