Chapter One

 

“WINGER, AMP here. My position’s about to be compromised. I’m not sure how much longer I can stay here.”

Through the comm channel, tension dripped from the agent’s quiet voice. Twenty-three years old and new to Tactical Operational Support, Amp sounded green and unsure. Reminded me of my first field mission less than a year ago.

“Hang tight, Amp. Focus on the neutralization of the firewall.” I projected calm because it’s what my team needed. Meanwhile, from an electrical equipment closet on the first floor, I worked to take over the research facility’s security system so it would appear as though multiple breaches were in progress. “Petty, do you have eyes on Amp’s position?”

“There are three working to open the door where Amp is.” Petty didn’t have a tremble in her voice even though this was her first time too. No doubt part of that was her safer position in the van outside. “They’ve brought in a blowtorch to get through the door.”

“Winger, what am I going to do?”

“You keep working. You’re there because you know what needs to be done. We’ll keep you safe.”

The building’s security was ridiculous in its complexity. Usually it was easy to find the logic in a system, this one seemed to have none. Maybe that was the point. I hoped to use the intricacies to force its downfall.

“Petty, how many inside?”

“Stand by.”

As the seconds ticked by, I got fidgety. “Petty?”

“Winger, one moment.”

“Don’t have a moment, Petty.” Annoyance slipped into my voice, which I didn’t like. Petty and Amp were assigned to me for this mission, and it fell to me to be senior agent in charge.

“Winger, they’re cutting through. There’s already a small hole in the door. I need at least another two minutes.”

“Understood, Amp.” He was right on schedule. In the mission briefing, he said he’d need fifteen minutes, and he was at thirteen. “Petty, now.”

“Seventeen across the three floors. Biggest clusters are on three and one.”

Time to make a distraction. I sent commands to deceive the security system into thinking an intruder breached a second-floor lab.

“Petty, disable the monitors on my mark but maintain your visibility.”

“Understood. Standing by.”

After a double-check of the commands, I poised my finger over the enter key. “Now, Petty.”

“Monitors disabled.”

“Distraction enabled.” The security statuses flipped from green to red on the south side of the second floor.

“No one’s moving to that area, Winger.”

“What?”

Confirmed.” Petty continued. “They’re ignoring it.”

What the hell? My monitor returned to green status. Everything seemed in order to make this work, especially since I saw—There was a loop of logic checks. This design was clever. I read quickly through the code and found the subroutine causing the problem.

“Stand by.”

We got bad intel on this place. No mention of buried security measures appeared in any of the reports. If we’d known that, we wouldn’t have sent Amp in before we knew we had control. I shouldn’t have sent him to start before I confirmed we could keep him safe. Now we needed an improvised distraction or he’d be exposed and the mission would fail.

I typed rapidly, looking for a way to make the security sensors trip.

“Petty, keep me posted on Amp’s status.”

“Copy that, Winger.”

Nothing worked. Apparently only the door sensor could send the right command back to central control to confirm an intruder. There was no time to figure this out.

“Damnit. Winger, I need more time. I’ve run into interference. Someone’s trying to kick me out. My timeline is shot.”

“Understood, Amp. Petty, do you have eyes on me?”

“Confirmed, Winger.”

This sucked hard, but there was little choice. If I couldn’t make a distraction remotely, I’d have to do it manually.

“Amp, I’m en route to your location. Keep at it and stop for nothing.”

“But—”

“Understood?”

Silence filled the channel for a moment. “Copy that.” He clearly didn’t like it.

“Petty, help me stay out of sight.”

“Got it.”

“You’re clear for the corridor you’re in and then on to the elevators and stairs.”

“Understood.”

Despite the info, I opened the door slowly and peeked around the corner. Since it was after hours, the lighting was at half, but that wouldn’t obscure me if anyone came into the hall.

Amp was on the second floor, but I wanted a distraction down here to draw people in this direction. The windows would be a good target if I could disrupt those sensors. I pulled my phone as I got to the stairs and brought up the building schematics. I needed to know where the sensors were.

“Winger,” Petty said. “Guards leaving the lobby. Get out of the hall.”

I opened the stairway door slowly to avoid noise and ducked in. There was no window in the door so I couldn’t see once it closed.

“Stand by. They’re past you but not out of the hall.”

All the doors and windows had sensors. I looked around the perimeter of the stairwell door and found one along the top.

Damn. No wires ran to the small block so severing the connection couldn’t happen. There was no time to figure out how to disrupt the wireless network that linked the sensors.

New plan.

I considered my options as I sprinted upstairs.

“Petty, tell me about the third floor.”

“Two guards are at the elevator bank behind a desk. Another is on patrol. Exit the staircase, go right and then left, and you’ll be out of sight for a few moments. But you’ve got to move now.”

I moved quick, happy I kept up with endurance exercises during the hockey off-season. At the door, I asked, “Clear?”

“Clear.”

I ended up in a hall filled with doors locked by retinal-scan and card-access readers. This should do the trick.

“Amp here. I think I’ve got less than five minutes before they’re in here. There’s even more resistance in the network. They’re tag-teaming me. I could really use you in here, Winger.”

“Here comes the distraction.”

I stepped up to the first scanner and pushed the only available button. Bright light hit my eye and the scanner turned red.

“Unauthorized,” a mechanical female voice announced.

Finally.

I moved to the next door and did it again.

“Three guards are headed your way.”

I moved to the other scanners quickly. The more alerts the better.

“Petty, next stairwell?”

“Three doors down on your left. You’ve got maybe fifteen seconds before they’ll see you.”

I ignored other sensors and made for the staircase.

“Where am I going to come out on two?” I asked as I headed down.

Another set of labs, bigger. Only two on the corridor. The guards are checking the doors on three, but one is headed into the stairway, and he’s on his radio.

“Which way do I go to get to Amp?”

“Out of the staircase, go right. That’s clear. Finding the best route from there.”

“Copy that.”

I followed the instructions and pressed my eye into the sensors at the labs I passed.

“You don’t have time for that. Take the next right and then look sharp. There are a lot of intersections. You’re going to take the third left, and you’ll be in the corridor where Amp is. He’s still got one person on his door. The other guards have dispersed, most are on three.”

I jogged down the hall with a stop to scan my unauthorized eye. Unexpectedly the hall lights went red and klaxons sounded.

That was new. Even though I didn’t know what caused it, I appreciated the extra noise to bring attention here.

Amp’s door is clear. The guard’s coming your way. Two more from behind. Get to the last intersection and go left. That’s the clearest bet, and you’ll get back to Amp.”

This was more fun than it should be. Sure, bad guys were coming, but running around in the corridors was an ultimate game of laser tag. I desperately did not want to get tagged.

“Winger, I’m in.” I smiled at the thrill in Amp’s voice. “Beginning data transfer.”

“Excellent. I’m on my way. Less than a minute.”

“You need to hurry, Winger. The guards are all responding to the last alarm you triggered. Take the next right. Amp is two doors from the end of the corridor. They’ll cut you off if you don’t hurry.”

I didn’t have much speed to add, but I pushed.

“The guy’s back working with the door.” Petty broke the news just as I turned into the hallway. We were both dressed in black. Maybe he’d mistake me for security as well.

“He’s almost through the entire frame.” To his credit, Amp sounded calmer.

I slowed. The man at the door needed to believe I was part of his team.

“Winger, you’re about to get pinned if the guard in the staircase to your left enters the floor.”

There was nowhere for me to go.

“Amp,” I was very quiet, knowing the comms would still pick up my voice, “no matter what finish the mission and make sure you get all the data.”

There was only a short pause. “Understood.”

I heard the stairway open behind me and boots on the floor.

“You there,” barked a new voice, “identify yourself.”

“Security. Hauer.” I didn’t turn or break stride.

He’s closing on you, Winger.

The loud clomps made that obvious. He must not have a stealth mode. The dude at the door turned his attention to me.

“Amp, can you help Winger?”

“No. The download is too unstable.”

“Where’s your badge?” asked the guy who’d been cutting the door open. A badge clipped to the front of his shirt hung over the pocket. He dropped his hand to the holster at his waist.

“Oh, man. Sorry. I forgot to clip it on when I started my shift.” Fishing around in my pockets, I had to buy a few more seconds.

“I’ve never heard of a Hauer,” said the man behind me. He shoved me forward as the guy in front of me aimed his gun. “Get your hands out of your pockets.”

When I didn’t immediately comply, he grabbed my right hand to forcibly remove it.

“Who are you? How’d you get in here?” Another shove from behind sent me sideways into the wall.

“I’ll have to talk to HR if you keep touching me.” I shrugged him off as he grabbed for me. “I told you I’ve got a badge. I just need to get it.”

“Winger, what are you doing?” Petty sounded nervous.

“Let me help you.” The man was in my face and he dug into my left pocket but came up with nothing. From my right, he pulled out my phone. “He’s got no ID.” He threw the phone to the floor.

“Now, who are you?” The man with the gun asked as he moved closer.

“Hey, Siri. Pulse.”

“Opening app Pulse,” Siri said.

“What did you do?”

“Five….” A male voice came from the phone.

“Turn it off.” The man with the gun twitched as the other guard picked up the phone.

“Four….”

He pulled the gun’s hammer back. “Now.”

“Three….”

“Hey, Siri. Stop Pulse!” the guard clutched the phone, screaming at it.

Did he really think it would take commands from anyone but me?

“Two….”

“Stop it!” the gunman shouted at me, but I only shook my head. “Smash it!”

The guy holding the phone threw it down and stomped on it with his heel.

“One….” Despite the crunch of the screen’s glass, it kept going.

The gun fired.

The impact slammed my chest.

“Pulse.”

Sparks flew from the lights and door mechanisms as well as the guard’s pockets.

I clutched my chest where the bullet hit.

“Winger!” Amp and Petty shouted into my ear.

Pain radiated from my chest as I crumpled to the floor.

Both guards shook, and one cried out, as they fell.

“Get that data secured,” I called out as red spilled out between my fingers.

 

 

“MISSION ACCOMPLISHED. Target data acquired. Two TOS agents in the clear. One TOS agent dead. Two enemy agents incapacitated. One enemy agent dead.” The female voice echoed through the corridors of the building.

With the exercise completed, I could get up. Numbness pulsed in my left arm because of the way I fell. Since dead guys don’t move, I couldn’t shift my position.

The two guards I’d taken out—the ones reported as incapacitated stirred as well. The three of us groaned in unison.

“I can’t believe you shot me. You know how that feels.” I glared and grinned simultaneously at Zan, who sat with one leg bent and his other out in front of him. I stood and offered him a hand up.

“You zapped us. What was I supposed to do? Go down quietly?”

“Well, if Leonardo here hadn’t kept my phone, I would’ve been just as fried as you two.”

“Sure, blame it on me. Next time, the phone goes out of Siri’s hearing range.”

That gave me an idea for an enhancement. Siri needed to be tied into the comms so if the phone was out of range—whether deliberate or accidental—the agent could still access the commands that we’d made Siri-friendly.

Siri proved to be a valuable addition to our arsenal of gadgets—easy to integrate with so we didn’t have to build our own solution but flexible enough we could make it secure for our use. It was a blast to work on Siri additions, like Pulse, which also required an upgrade to the phone itself to allow for the energy discharge.

“Do you have any idea the bruise I’ll have from the shot? The Kevlar only—”

“Oh my God, Theo!” I smiled at Petty, who ran down the hall toward me. “I’m glad you’re okay. I had no idea this was a simulation.”

“You weren’t supposed to.” I grinned. “You did good, Sarina. Where’s Darnell?” In all the people streaming into the hallway, I didn’t see him.

“He’s… a little shaken.” She appeared sheepish. I cocked my head and raised an eyebrow. “He in the bathroom downstairs. Sounded like he might be sick.”

I nodded. “I’ll go check on him. We’ll debrief at HQ at one.” I turned and pointed to Zan. “You owe me at least a case of Dr Pepper. I’ll see you guys later.”

I left to find Darnell. A few people along the way stopped me to chat about the simulation or congratulate me on the job we’d done. I didn’t know the success rate on this one but planned to check before the briefing to see how we measured up.

I found Darnell gripping the sides of the sink as the water ran. He stared into the basin.

“Hey. You okay?” I stepped close but not too close. “You did good. Mission accomplished.”

“Coming out of that room… seeing you….” His voice cracked on nearly each word. “I shot somebody.” As he looked at me in the reflection of the mirror, his haunted expression indicated his distress. “What if this had been real?”

“Then you did what you needed to finish the mission and get out.” I tossed aside my previous strategy and stepped close to put a hand on his shoulder. “This simulation focuses on how to cope with the stress of a field mission.”

Darnell straightened and I moved back. “I may not be cut out for this.”

“Maybe. Or it could be the shock of the first time. There’s a lot of discussion and analysis to come. We’ll sort it out. Not all of us are made for the field and we don’t all have to be.”

“I’m sorry.”

“Don’t be. You did good and these reactions are okay.”

“Did you know this was a simulation?”

I nodded. “I knew there’d be one, but I didn’t know the scenario. Lorenzo threw a curveball with what he did to the security system to force me into the building.”

I tried to keep things light so he wouldn’t be harder on himself. I knew how difficult missions could be, and I hadn’t had the benefit of training like this my first time out.

He nodded, and I made a mental note to flag him for additional counseling. Sarina and Darnell would both get psych reviews to check on their mental state following the exercise, but I’d have to report this because he may be right about not being fit for the field.

“Come on. Let’s get some lunch before we spend the afternoon talking about this.” Another sullen nod. “And trust me when I say that your reactions are all okay. I’ve been out on missions twice and it’s a lot to process.”

He smiled weakly as we walked. “Seems like you do okay.”

“You haven’t seen me in the immediate aftermath. It’s rough out there, but I’ve learned how to take care of myself, and so will you.”

“What if I can’t?”

“Like I said, there’s plenty to do around here without field certification.”

Once again, he nodded and his mood seemed to improve a little.