Matheson paced back and forth in the waiting room of the private clinic. He didn’t see the beige furniture and mildly narcotic e-ink art as it morphed on the walls. His vision was filled with streaming surveillance footage as he tried to do a postmortem on the attack. He popped another Modafinil absently when his attention started to drift, and he realized that he had been awake for 28 hours. In the old days, when he worked for The Company, he would have had an entire team of analysts working on this stuff, but now pattern recognition AI identified and tagged all of the relevant footage.
Matheson had enthusiastically adopted this new paradigm, as automation had shrunk the footprint of his operational team and thus lowered the risk of leaks. But now he missed having someone to bounce his ideas off of, as he struggled to figure out how this simple benefit dinner had gone so terribly wrong. And he was about to face the harshest cross-examination of his life. Evelyn’s father’s chopper registered on his situational awareness dashboard long before he heard the heavy thomp-thomp of its rotors. Matheson wished he had something to calm his nerves before facing this furious plutocrat in person.
He briefly considered calling the cyberspecialist, Oliver, to get some independent read on the situation, but he had jammed all radio frequencies around the clinic, and he had even taken the drastic step of physically cutting all of the fiber into the clinic when they brought Evelyn in, so he didn’t want to risk a call at this point. Suddenly, his local area map lit up like a Christmas tree, and Matheson caught his breath in shock. There was a flash, and the single triangle representing the chopper carrying Simon Ardenwood was immediately replaced by an entire formation of unmarked aircraft, probably military. At that moment, Matheson’s live outdoor camera feeds flickered and revealed the parking lot filled with SUVs and several large, unmarked box trucks.
“Fucking feds came in with full stealth,” he muttered to himself, as the door opened and a team of agents entered, obviously from the FBI, but in undesignated tactical wear.
Two suits approached Matheson with a deferential air. “Sorry to spring this on you, sir. But you understand,” said the agent on the left. He left his shades opaque during the greeting.
The other agent was more polite and made his glasses translucent, so that Matheson could see the tension in his brown eyes. “Director Hitchens is coming in on Ardenwood’s chopper. They want you to greet them. Come with us.”
Matheson made a face to show his surprise at the mention of Hitchens’ name, but neither agent took the bait, and they ushered him outside, where the air was full of copters, most of them modern military units, disturbingly quiet as they dropped down onto the building’s roof and the manicured lawn. The air stunk of diesel from the big trucks and helicopter fuel.
“Obviously, we have the perimeter locked down. We had to blank out your defense systems to come in quietly, but we are going to release them now. Please stand down all defense modules, including frequency jammers,” said the agent with the dark shades.
“I won’t bother asking for transfer of custody codes, I guess,” muttered Matheson, as he sent out the commands to shut down his measly defenses, which paled in comparison to the assets that the feds had brought in.
“We are law and order guys, not military, we will get you your codes, sir,” said the brown eyed agent.
Matheson looked him over. He was a young fellow, Asian or Hispanic, he couldn’t tell. But he seemed earnest.
He was distracted by a big civilian chopper landing right in the lot and creating a massive blast of turbulence. Hitchens and Ardenwood emerged, ducking as they ran out from under the roaring rotors.
Matheson’s gut roiled as he stood up straight to greet these two powerful men. Ardenwood had entrusted his daughter to Matheson, and Matheson had failed him. He could really use a drink right now.
But Ardenwood didn’t pay Matheson the slightest bit of attention, he just sprinted toward the clinic, anguish carved into his face. Matheson turned to watch his employer run past, realizing how painful this must be for him. Hitchens clapped him on the shoulder and brought him back to the moment.
“Matheson, I read your file, you are good man,” said the greying director. He was a chubby man of medium height, grey haired, with the soft hands of a career bureaucrat.
“Thank you, uh, Mr. Hitchens,” said Matheson. He had been about to address the director as “sir,” but he caught himself.
“We are going to want to debrief you here, my team is assembling now, I hope that’s convenient,” said the director absently, in a tone that said he didn’t care if Matheson found it convenient or not.
Matheson, Hitchens, and the two agents reentered the clinic together and went through the foyer and down a light blue, tiled hallway that looked and smelled perfectly antiseptic. A tall, blonde haired young man dressed as an orderly appeared. He guided them to the examination room, where Simon Ardenwood hovered anxiously over his daughter, who was laid out on an exam table. She was wearing a hospital gown and was attached to an array of machinery that monitored her heartbeat and brainwaves. Her eyes were open, but she was staring off sightlessly, as she writhed and thrashed back and forth on the table, surrounded by doctors and nurses.
“Evelyn, can you hear me? It’s Papa, darling,” shouted Ardenwood, taking his daughter by the wrists.
“She can’t hear you, Mr. Ardenwood,” insisted a hard faced nurse with the lean, muscular physique of a triathlete. She firmly detached Simon’s grip from his daughter and led him away from the table where she lay, delirious.
A dark skinned Indian doctor, his eyes burning with a fierce intelligence, took Simon by the arm and guided him over to Hitchens and Matheson.
“I am Dr. Joshi,” said the doctor to the group. “This is a very strange case. Ms. Ardenwood seems totally unresponsive, but her EEG clearly shows that she is conscious. Her blood work has revealed nothing. We need to transfer her to a neurological facility as soon as possible. In all my years of experience, I have seen nothing like this.”
“Thank you, Dr. Joshi, but we have our own specialists coming in, and we’re afraid that we HAVE seen something like this, and it isn’t good,” said Hitchens.
The doctor looked concerned. “Do we need to institute a quarantine?” he asked.
“No, I don’t think so,” said Hitchens. “At least not one that we are capable of implementing in this sort of facility.”
“My god, what are we talking about here, Hitchens?” demanded Ardenwood. “You’ve been cagey with me the entire flight. I want answers! Don’t make me get on the phone with the attorney general.”
Hitchens looked pained. He made a motion for the agents to stay, took both Ardenwood and Matheson by the lapels, and led them out of the exam room. They found an empty breakroom across the hall, and Hitchens turned to Matheson.
“I assume you have some fancy, commercial grade privacy screens?” Hitchens asked, as he located a paper cup and filled it with coffee from a dispenser.
“Well, you should know I had military grade stuff deployed when you arrived,” said Matheson.
“What is this nonsense? Has my daughter been drugged by some sort of maniac?”
“Simon, shut up and listen to me,” said Hitchens sharply, bringing Ardenwood to a halt. “We aren’t talking about a fucking DRUG here. And that was no maniac. Do you really think I would bring in so many assets for such a thing? I mean, you are an important man, but really, use your brain for a moment.”
Ardenwood’s face worked as he struggled to contain his emotions. “So some sort of terrorist group?”
“Targeting the economic elite,” added Matheson.
Hitchens turned to Matheson and pointed. “Bingo.”
Matheson continued, but he felt unnerved. “And if it’s no drug and the techs at THIS fucking place can’t pinpoint it, we are talking about something heavy, black nanotech or something.”
“Jesus Christ, Matheson,” said Hitchens, genuinely impressed. “They said you were good, but what the hell?”
“I’ve locked down the signals in and out of this place,” said Matheson.
Hitchens shrugged, “You know how it goes, they get their dirty little fingers into our research pipeline and all hell breaks loose.”
“I don’t know what the fuck you two are talking about, autonomous nanotech making my daughter delirious?” scoffed Ardenwood.
“Look Simon, I’m sorry,” said Hitchens. “We need to move Evelyn to a secure compound. This isn’t the first case we’ve seen.” He turned to Matheson. “You are off the case, Mr. Matheson. This is a very sensitive federal investigation. My team will debrief you and you will go on leave until further notice. Your services won’t be needed.” Matheson started to object, but Hitchens held up a delicately manicured hand and bowed his head. “I know what you are feeling right now. You feel like you dropped the ball and let your charge be attacked. You want to run out there and catch the bad guys. And you are good, one of the better operators around, I can see that. But this game is too complicated as it is, and we can’t have any more moving parts. You need to sit this one out.”
“Matheson works for ME, Hitchens, not you,” sputtered Ardenwood.
“Your connections can protect you, Mr. Ardenwood,” said Hitchens, brushing his sleeves casually. “But not your operatives. If you put this pawn back into play, I will remove him from the board.”
Ardenwood looked at Hitchens in shock as his words sank in.
Hitchens smiled in a friendly way at Matheson. “Don’t take that the wrong way, son. I mean, I know you are more of a knight than a pawn. Just leave those screens in place. My team will come in to debrief you in a moment. Have your surveillance footage and operation logs prepared for secure transfer.” Hitchens tossed his coffee cup in the garbage. “And you know what? When this mess is all over, let’s set up a meeting and see about getting you back onto the government payroll. Some of our special positions offer compensation packages that are competitive with the private sector.”
Hitchens left and Ardenwood started pacing, clearly agitated. “Matheson, you’ve worked for me for a lot of years, but I won’t ask you to risk your life for Evelyn.”
“You don’t have to, Simon,” said Matheson, “You don’t have to.” In his heart, he knew he would take any risk to find the bastards that had hurt Evelyn. He just hoped that Hitchens couldn’t command the sort of loyalty that he thought he could. It would take a special sort of bootlicker to gun down a fellow American and fellow operator in the field. Even if Matheson had been in the private sector a long time, he hoped that the brotherhood among those who serve might offer him some protection. Because he was about to stick his nose where it didn’t belong, and knight or pawn as he may be, he would prefer to stay on the board a while longer.
Across the hall, Evelyn writhed under the worried supervision of the medical staff, but she didn’t see the blinking lights or concerned faces all around her. Instead, she saw a dusty refugee camp and a figure in a Guy Fawkes mask leading her into a dismal, hellish tableau of death and suffering. “Come see the world you have wrought, my precious flower,” he told her in his choppy, synthetic voice, and then he dissolved into pixels as she wept at what lay before her.