Beneath a pile of wrinkled bed linen, something stirred. A pale hand emerged from the pastel hump, followed by a mop of tussled blonde hair. A sound that may or may not have been human started as a rumble from beneath the sheets, culminating in the emergence of a woman who had most certainly seen better days. At that early stage it was impossible to tell if she was even slightly attractive in her natural state. Mascara and lipstick not removed the night before had smeared, clown panda style over her face and her skin took an ashen appearance in the intrusive morning light which glared mercilessly through the windows. The curtains had not been closed the night before. A gushing sound from elsewhere in the apartment indicated that the taps on the bathroom sink had suffered similar neglect.
Zora stretched and rolled over, groaning as she did. Her entire body was wracked with the spasms of a life of iniquity. If it had been possible for her liver to crawl up her throat and strangle her, it would have done so, she was sure. Another evening had passed spent in the tender arms of a bottle of bourbon and the morning brought with it the usual regrets.
Stumbling towards the kitchen clad only in a pair of boxers shorts and a tank top, Zora mangled the contents of her lower cupboards looking for aspirin. The coffee maker had done its job and a fresh pot was ready for consumption. She thanked heaven for the small mercies as she fished a chipped mug out of the dish drainer and sloshed a decent amount of the brew into it. A fair amount ended up on the counter top too, but the spillage was not relevant to Zora’s interests at that point in time, so she abandoned the pool of steadily cooling coffee and retired to the futon in the lounge to collect her brain.
Switching on the television, she was immediately assailed by an onslaught of fairly bad news. Floods, fires, uprisings, underisings, corruption, bribery, economic collapse. It was all more depressing than reaching into a the bottom of a bag of chips and discovering a cigarette butt and a suspiciously wet napkin. In spite of the general doom and gloom being espoused before her eyes, outside the apartment it was a warm, sunny day. Zora tried to take comfort in that even as a busty blonde with collagen lips did her very best to convince unsuspecting viewers that men with funny hats were desperately trying to kill them.
“Trying to kill us and take our Botox,” Zora muttered, sipping her coffee. “To arms!”
Whilst Zora indulged in the luxury of healthy cynicism, not a hundred miles away the men and women who did battle for her freedom were facing yet another threat.
Deep under rust red rocky outcroppings, a briefing was taking place inside a subterranean compound. It was a top secret location and a very well hidden one, one could have hiked all over it and not known of its existence. It was not located near a military base, nor were there any obvious security checkpoints looming out of the desert where it was buried. All the security needed for the state of the art facility was contained within its very walls and mounted behind impenetrable facades in the mountains.
If one was fortunate enough to be allowed inside, or unfortunate enough to unexpectedly wake up inside as many of the compound’s guests often did, one would not have the foggiest idea just how far underground one really was. There were no windows and in the holding areas, fluorescent lights lit the sterile halls permanently, inducing an uncomfortable sense of timelessness. Day and night had no meaning at all in the bowels of the earth. It wasn’t all bad however, a great amount of care had been taken to ensure that the areas intended to be inviting were very inviting indeed. In the areas frequented by staffers and those who commanded them there were seventy color palette color carpets spun from the finest New Zealand wool and tasteful light fittings that not only cast aside the native darkness of that subterranean dwelling, but also emitted rays designed to stimulate the production of Vitamin D. No expense had been spared in the construction and outfitting of the unnamed compound, known to those in the loop as Area X, for no economy had been necessary. Those tasked with the challenge of keeping the nation, nay, the world, safe were not required to suffer the ignominy of penny pinching.
In a comfortable office, complete with a large faux window that looked out onto a computer generated meadow, Captain Savage stood at attention, waiting for his superior to brief him. He had already been partially briefed of course, it would have been a shameful waste of his CO’s time to come to a briefing without having at least a rudimentary grasp of the situation at hand.
Savage was a tall man, standing at just a hair over 6’3. The rest of his body followed along the super scale nature had set out for him. His shoulders were broad and held perfectly square. His muscular torso tapered to a strong waist and each of his thighs was a sculpted powerful slab, hard as iron. He was past the first bloom of youth, and the second for that matter, but that had not dulled the keen look in his eye, and the slight hint of salt in his short black hair only served to make him look more distinguished than ever. He was a serious man, and that was carved into every line of his face. His eyes were framed by thick, dark brows that naturally tapered to sharp points. They gave him an air of astute observation even when he was at rest. His nose had been broken several times, but the slight wave in the bridge did nothing to soften his appearance. The only concession Mother Nature had made was in his lower lip, which was rather full, perhaps even sensual. The scar that ran from the left side of it down his jaw line only enhanced the softness by way of contrast.
“We’re in a hell of a bind Captain Savage.” General Hurtzwald slammed a folder of classified materials down on the glass table top in front of Savage. Picking them up, Savage appeared to give them a brief once over, but being a quick study, he’d already caught the salient points of the mission. A nuclear missile capable of hitting several target rich civilian environments was in the hands of Bulgarian militants. It was imperative that the missile be removed or permanently disabled in some other way as soon as possible. But there was some serious protection around this particular piece of machinery.
“That’s some impressive technology,” Savage noted, gazing over the file.
“It’s a hunk of deadly junk, but its protected by something that the boys tell me can detect even the smallest electronic signals. If it detects something, it triggers a total shut down, or a premature launch. Kabloey!” Hurtzwald demonstrated the potentially devastating impact of the missile launch by flailing his arms in the air.
Savage nodded impassively, as if the prospect of significant explosions did not bother him in the slightest. “So we won’t be bringing any of our own hardware on this mission.”
“Not unless we want to get dead.” Hurtzwald rested against the desk on his fist. “It’s a brain twister.”
“Yes it is,” Savage muttered, glancing over the details once more. It would have been so easy if it weren’t for the electronic detection system. Surveillance had revealed that the computer hooked up to the system could be overridden with a series of algorithmically generated codes. The Bulgarians carried keys with these codes and entered the correct codes when prompted by the missile’s protection system. It was a devilishly simple, but incredibly effective defense. Ordinarily it would have been a simple matter of gaining entry, hooking the enemy machine up to a processor and cracking the protection by brute force. As it was, they had to find some way around the system.
“We fuck this up, it could mean the end of the world as we know it, Savage,” General Hurtzwald growled, crossing his arms over his chest and staring off at the ‘window’ into what looked to be the distance, but was actually several feet of hardened alloy and beyond that, hundreds of feet of rock.
Privately Savage was of the opinion that every day was the end of the world as they knew it. He did not voice this opinion to his superior officer. He had long ago learned that philosophy was ill appreciated amongst those who made down and dirty life and death decisions. Instead he nodded curtly and schooled his features into the serious configuration that would let his CO know he had Savage’s full attention.
The General turned back to him, an expectant expression on his wrinkled features. Savage knew what he wanted. It was the same thing they all wanted when they called him. The General wanted someone who would get the job done quickly, cleanly and more importantly, without any embarrassment. “We will find a way, Sir.”
“Damn right you will,” the General coughed. “Dismissed.”
Savage left the meeting with his mind working overtime. Officially of course, the meeting had never taken place. Officially he was fly fishing in Bermuda. According to his cover, he spent a lot of time in Bermuda. He’d never actually been there, but he hoped to one day visit for real. From the material he’d been given to study about the place, it looked like a damn nice spot to get away from it all.
As per his standard practice, Savage was already on the case. He had been since yesterday afternoon in fact. The meeting with the General was a formality. Savage’s brow furrowed as he pondered the complexities of the situation. If they couldn’t get that weapon out of there or at least disable it, it wouldn’t just put millions of innocent lives in danger, it would forever change the balance of power in a volatile region of the world.
Striding into the compound’s data center, Savage looked amidst the many glowing terminals manned by uniformed personnel for the one man in the room who he knew would stick out like a sore thumb. He saw him within seconds, the guy was sucking on a candy cigarette and perusing a video sharing site. Savage’s temper spiked momentarily. They were dealing with a significant potential threat and all the boy could do was eat candy and play online.
“What have you got for me, Ethan?” Savage slapped the young bearded man on the back. Ordinarily all personnel were clean shaven, but Ethan was an exception. Ethan was a civilian. A civilian contracted to his last breath, but a civilian none the less. Ethan had taken advantage of the opportunity afforded by his status to wear wide legged jeans and hippy style floral shirt, grow his hair out and cultivate a beard that reached down to his chest.
“Well,” Ethan grinned smugly, removing the candy cigarette from his mouth between the tips of his fingers. “I might actually have something for you boss. I might just have saved the world.”
“By playing on the Internet?” The skepticism practically dripped from Savage’s lips.
“Didn’t they tell you grandpa? You can find anything you need online these days.” Ethan grinned and ducked unsuccessfully as Savage clipped him over the ear.
“Get on with it,” Savage’s expression had grown dire. With the blow, Ethan caught onto his mood and the levity decreased to appropriate levels.
“Okay, so we can’t get a computer in there, right? Not a regular computer.”
“But what’s the best computer in the world?”
“I don’t know.” Savage was growing visibly impatient at the apparently irrelevant line of questioning. “It doesn’t matter because we’d have to be on site anyway, and the place is rigged to go if anything electronic gets in.”
“It’s a stupid system,” Ethan sneered. “If it’s that sensitive, anything could set it off. The world could end because a janitor forgot a MP3 player in his pants.”
“Well the Bulgarians didn’t ask for your opinion, did they Ethan?”
“No. If they did there would be no way we’d get in,” Ethan’s lips curled up in a smug smile. “Fortunately for us, I think we’re going to get in. Watch this.”
With a quick series of clicks, Ethan closed a video of a fat cat diving repeatedly into boxes and queued up one of a fairly unremarkable looking woman next to a computer. A narrator with a nasal voice began explaining that the computer and the women were about to have a showdown. They would both be fed complex equations in a competition to see who was fastest, woman or machine. As he watched the view from the hand held camera shudder around the scene like a boat on a high wind, Savage was beginning to think that Ethan was deliberately wasting his time, stalling for some reason, but then the contest began. The woman was handed a piece of paper and after barely glancing at it, she rattled out a seven digit number. Several seconds later, the computer confirmed her accuracy. Another equation was given, then another. Time after time, the woman spat out numbers faster than the computer could.
“Holy hell,” Savage swore underneath his breath. “Is that real?”
“Yeah, I did some digging. That’s real,” Ethan nodded. “But it’s also out of this world.” He glanced up at his superior officer with the grin he only got when he knew he’d done well. “I think we found our man,” he announced. Wo-man,” he corrected himself.
The pieces fell into place in Savage’s mind. “So instead of taking a computer in there, we take in someone who can process the algorithms just like a computer can.”
“Exactly,” Ethan smiled, snapping the end of the candy cigarette off in his mouth.
“This is why we keep you around,” Savage smiled as Ethan beamed with pride. “So what do we have on her? Who is this computer brain?”
“What do we have? We have everything,” Ethan smirked smugly, bringing up a profile complete with a mug shot which showed the woman far more clearly, but in a vastly unflattering light. Mascara had smudged under her almond eyes and her hair, the roots of which were dark, the tips of which were a frizzy blonde appeared to have bits and pieces of twig stuck in it. The shot was cropped at her shoulders, but it looked as if her clothing had sustained some damage prior to being booked. She was a hot mess, no doubt about it. In spite of what had clearly been a hard night, there was a little smirk on her wide crimson lips and a look of outright defiance in her eyes.
“Zora Matthews. Graduated 2002 with a degree in Accountancy. Thirty two years old. Single. No Dependents.” Ethan read the basic stats of the profile aloud. “Height, 5’8, Weight estimated at 165 pounds.”
“Not exactly what I’d expected,” Savage mused, taking in her wrecked appearance.
“Yeah, from the looks of things, she’s a quirky one,” Ethan said. “Pretty much average in every way except for her brain.” He tapped through a few more windows. “Bonus points for us, she’s located in San Sanadino, a couple of hours away.”
“Shouldn’t be too hard to pick her up then,” Savage muttered as his initial enthusiasm waned. The longer he looked at the face on the screen, the more uncertain he felt about the whole plan. Civilians were tricky, panicky animals at the best of times. It wouldn’t be easy to bring one up to speed for a mission of this nature. “What’s the mugshot for?”
Ethan tabbed through a few sections and peered intensely at the monitor. “Nothing to worry about. Just a drunk and disorderly.” He grinned at his own impending joke. “When she’s not solving advanced equations, Zora likes to party.”
“Well she’s not going to be partying for a while,” Savage said grimly.
It was midday and Zora had not moved from the futon. Both she and her pounding head agreed that it wasn’t worth the hassle. The depressing news had given way to infomercials. Whilst she watched an elderly couple wax poetic about the joys of shoving whole fruit into a juicer, Zora found herself wondering if there was any point to it all. Had the species really emerged from the primordial sludge only to spend their days looking for another shiny plastic device to clutter up the counter?
Her stomach growled. She was hungry. If she’d had one of those juicer things she could have prepared nutritious, allegedly tasty juice in just thirty seconds. As it was, she had to settle for toaster tarts. Wrapping a blanket around her shoulders, she shuffled back to the kitchen. Much to her pleasure, she found that she managed to get the tarts out of their plastic wrapping and into the toaster in under twenty seconds. That was a saving of ten seconds over potato corn juice and a triumph for convenience food.
Whilst her tarts toasted, Zora watched the toaster carefully. It was old and not very good at toasting anymore. It also had rather disturbing habit of ejecting its contents at inopportune times with a loud clanging of springs that had threatened to give her a coronary on more than one occasion.
She was keyed up for the inevitable ejection when a loud banging at the door made her shriek with fear. After realizing that she was not under toaster attack, she tossed the blanket from her shoulders and tip-toed to the door. She was ever so slightly behind on rent, which was terrible form for an accountant, but drinks didn’t buy themselves. Carefully, she peered out of the peep hole and was relieved when she saw that it was not her landlord. Her landlord was short and barrel shaped and perpetually wore short sleeved shirts that showed his hairy forearms like trophies. There were two men outside her door and neither of them matched that description. One was so tall that she could only see his shoulder, the other was a fresh faced young man in a neatly pressed olive green uniform.
They were military, that was obvious enough. What were they doing at her door though? Zora thought about that for a moment, but her thoughts were scattered when the big man knocked again. Putting the safety chain on, she opened the door and peered out the small crack. “Can I help you?”
“Ms Matthews?” The voice was deep and sonorous, pleasant even. The man attached to the voice looked wildly out of place in her hallway. His face was chiseled and worn in a way that suggested hardship. He was a huge man and instinctively Zora felt the kind of fear that one experiences when one is face to face with someone or something much more powerful than oneself. The fact that he was handsome and smiling warmly took some of the edge off her reaction, but still the anxiety lingered.
“Yes?” She regretted having answered in the affirmative almost as soon as the ill considered word slipped out between her lips.
“We’d like to talk to you for a bit.”
Zora frowned. What had she gotten up to last night? Casting her mind back, she remembered the bar, but not much else. She couldn’t even remember how she’d made it home, now she thought about it. “Why? Who are you?”
A government ID was pressed up against the crack. “I’m Captain Brett Savage. It’s a matter best discussed privately.”
A feeling of foreboding was creeping over Zora. There was no good reason for them to be at her apartment. She must have done something really terrible to earn herself a visit from the military. A police officer at the door was bad enough, but this, this was some deep shit. “This isn’t really a good time for me,” she explained apologetically. “I’m home sick today.”
Captain Savage’s expression remained impassively neutral. “That’s unfortunate Ma’am, but we only need a few minutes of your time.”
“I’m afraid I don’t have a few minutes to give,” Zora replied stubbornly. The insistence was beginning to irritate her. “Besides, you might get sick.”
“I hate to intrude on your time off, Ma’am, but this is a matter of some importance. We’ll take the risk.”
“Okay,” Zora sighed. The guy was just not going to let the matter drop. She must have really fucked up this time. “Come back in an hour. I need to get tidied up in here.”
Captain Savage did not seem overly pleased by the idea of waiting an hour. He fixed her with a stern look that she found reminiscent of the look her old headmaster used to give her when attempting to extract a confession about some prank or another. “It is something of a time sensitive issue, Ma’am.”
“It can’t be anything that can’t wait an hour,” Zora said, closing the door firmly in his face and bolting it securely. Stepping away from the door, she realized that she was shaking. The guy hadn’t said an unkind word and yet somehow he’d managed to rattle her. Something was afoot. She sniffed the air. Something was burning.
She turned toward the kitchen where black smoke was rising from the toaster, along with a licking orange flame. “Shit!” Zora squealed and rushed over to unplug the appliance. Her breakfast had become a carbohydrate loaded inferno. She tipped the toaster over and tossed the burning tarts into the sink just as the door burst open, the lock kicked right out of the frame by a solid size ten shoe.
“What the fuck!” Zora screamed. “What are you doing?”
“I heard a scream,” Captain Savage explained, striding towards her. She took a step backwards and found herself pressed against the counter top as he reached in front of her turned the water on, dousing the flames that had been burning merrily in the sink.
“I was going to do that,” she frowned, craning her neck so she could glower at him with maximum efficiency.
He looked down at her calmly, not at all disturbed by her explosive temper. “You were busy cursing me, so I took the liberty,” Savage explained with just the slightest touch of a dry wit.
“Okay, well you can get out now,” Zora said. “Now that you’ve fucked my door.”
“There’s no need to be upset, Ma’am,” Savage gave her some space and held his large hands up placatingly. “I didn’t mean to intrude. I thought you might have been in danger.”
Slightly mollified, Zora nodded. “Okay, well I need to get sorted out here. Just give me a couple of minutes, okay?”
“Take your time,” Savage replied courteously. Zora watched as he walked away, back into the hall. She was alone again for the time being, but he was still outside and the feeling deep in her belly that something was wrong was growing ever more. This was too much to deal with, she decided. Too much to deal with on an empty belly and a hangover.
She went to the bedroom and closed the door behind her. Whilst the men waited outside her battered front door she picked out some unassuming clothing, a pair of blue jeans and a red hooded sweater. Pulling them on quickly, she grabbed a knapsack and tossed a a few handy things inside it, wallet, cell phone, net book, deodorant, passport just in case. A couple of spare sets of underwear followed and she was set. Glancing over her shoulder one last time at the now busted front door, she pushed the window above the bed open and dropped out onto the fire escape.