Beyond Termination

The news hit her hard.  The asset she had kept alive all these years was being made obsolete; younger ones were there to take over.  With the expiration of their property would come her own, and she knew it.  Liaisons only worked with one operative.  Once the operative’s usefulness in the field was over, their liaison’s time with the project was as well.

Alice looked over the sea of people who were gathered in the conference room.  A few had managed to approach her, making awkward small talk as they waited for the guest of honor to appear.

“So, Alice, any thoughts about what you will do now?”  One of the secretaries, Mary, asked her while smiling overly politely.  “It must be difficult having no real life outside of here, hmm?”

“I thought I would take some time off, maybe have a real vacation.”  Alice replied as she forced a smile of her own while she gripped the glass of champagne.  She had been involved with this facility for over ten years.  It was her life – hell, he was her life.  Now, that part of her life was ending, and she really didn’t quite know what to do with herself.

 After a few more superficial pleasantries, and trying to deal with Mary’s smugness, Alice attempted to slip away from the crowds to a corner.  The amount of people in the room was a little overwhelming, especially since during these last ten years, she had dealt more with disembodied voices over radio frequencies than face-to-face encounters.

“Alice!”  A voice exclaimed, catching her off-guard and pulling her out from hiding in the room.

“Administrator.”  She greeted the approaching man, delivering another forced smile to her superior.  Alice tugged a little at her skirt, shifting on the heels she wore.  She was trying her best not to look as awkward and nervous as she felt.

“Please, call me Tom.  No need to be so formal now, Alice.  We’re proud of all the good work you did with Map.  Over ten years – that’s quite an accomplishment.  Most operative-liaison teams never reach those kinds of numbers.”  He continued to smile as he looked towards Alice.

“Yes Administrator,”  Alice replied stiffly,  “I am proud of Map and my work with him, also.”  The fact was it wasn’t that most operative-liaison teams reached the decade mark; it was that they were actually the only team ever to have made it through those years.  “Isn’t Map too valuable to be put out to pasture, though?”

The Administrator gave a laugh, though it didn’t quite seem to reach his eyes as he stared her down.  “Alice, this is his retirement.  He earned this – it’s a celebration of both of your efforts.  You should-” He paused, as the man in question entered the room.

Alice followed the Administrator’s gaze, and found her operative standing in the door frame.  Their eyes met, and she nodded her head, though shifted on her heels.  She could feel a pang in her heart as they gazed at each other.  The bond they forged over those years was something she couldn’t shake and something she would grieve now that it was over.  While it was manufactured by their trainers and superiors, it didn’t make it feel any less real.  Their last mission together ended with a rushed goodbye, as neither had known it would be the final one.

The Administrator quickly moved from her side, intent on closing in on Map.  He gave her a rushed set of words to excuse himself, and she was left alone with her drink once more.  A quiet came over the gathered crowd as the guest of honor’s presence was noticed.  Clapping erupted from the silence, and Alice juggled the glass of champagne while joining in.

She watched from her corner of the room, as the Administrator spoke with Map.  Alice was trying to get the courage to approach him; however, it was slow developing.  The Administrator kept the conversation between himself and Map going, and as she was about to approach him, another person in the room had engaged Map in conversation.

Alice let out a sigh and moved towards the refreshment table.  She picked at the crudités.  Her mouth was filled with carrot as Mary decided to swoop in once more.

“Map looks pretty good for an operative of his years.  It’s amazing that he’s stayed alive this long.  He must have a lot of luck on his side.”  Mary tittered.

Alice had enough.  She placed her glass of champagne down on the table none too softly, and then stared down the other woman.

“It’s skill.  Map is the best operative a liaison could have, and we made a great team.  How could you understand that, though?  You should ease off the alcohol.  It terminates brain cells, and you appear to be working with less than a full deck as it is.”

 Alice promptly spun on her heels and left Mary at the refreshments table.  The secretary stared after the liaison, her jaw agape at the audacity of the other woman.  Still, Alice felt she was justified in her words, and frankly she had gotten tired of Mary’s hostility.  As she finished the exchange of verbal jabs she noticed Map was alone.  Alice approached her operative.

Their eyes met and held as she closed the distance between them.  Alice felt more nervous than she let on, inwardly she tried to remind herself to stay calm.  Map was an old friend – friend?  The term was both severely lacking and entirely too familiar.  They worked together, however he had been her first concern as she woke, and the last thought on her mind before she slept.  It was the norm, her norm, for ten years.  Alice always would attempt to think of strategies she could help Map implement, how to better upgrade the systems to ensure their missions were successful.  Everything in her life revolved around Map, and as she walked to him, she felt more lost than ever.

“Hi,” Map greeted her.

“Hello, it’s been awhile,”  Alice gave a smile, managing to ease the nerves building inside.

“Yeah.”  His reply was simple, however it carried some weight.

“You hate this, don’t you?  It’s ok, you don’t have to hide it.  I’m not overly fond of it myself,” Alice continued on, without waiting for his reply.  She tended to talk more when she was nervous, and this was no exception.  “I know our situation is – different, but I hope you are able to trust me.  Outside of your assignments, I mean.  What I’m trying to get at is I think I know what you’re feeling.  As your Liaison…”

“Arbiter,” he interjected, catching her off-guard.

“If you like.  It fits, you’ve never had much in the way of choice.”

“You don’t have to coddle me, your job’s done,” Map said calmly.

“I’m about as happy to be put out to pasture as you are, by the way.  Besides, whether I was instructed to or not, I did look out for you.  I may represent something you don’t like, but that’s not all that I am.”  Alice was getting slightly heated, her feathers were ruffled from the earlier encounter with Mary, and it was influencing her now.

“I did,” he faltered, “I missed – not saying goodbye.”

“I think we both suspected it was the last time for us,” Alice replied, her tone saddened.

“I hate feeling like this.  I hate not knowing if I really feel what I feel, or if they made me this way.  I think I should be happy.  My whole life has been spent either training or fighting, but,” he trailed off.

“You don’t know anything else,” Alice finished for him.  “It was your life, it was your job, you did a lot to help people.  You should feel good about that at least.”

“Sure I do, but now I feel useless; everything is a struggle now.  They lapped me today,” he said quietly, and Alice strained a little to hear his words over the noise of the room.

“It would almost be easier if you didn’t make it so far,” she said, then winced, too late to catch herself.  He gave her a look that she thought she deserved.  “You know what I mean.  It’s terrible getting old, especially at your age.”  Their age.  She was inwardly reminded that they were roughly the same age, though her job was less taxing on her body than his part in their working relationship.  Map didn’t respond.    “My story may not be as tragic as yours,” she continued, “but it isn’t any fun for me, either.  I’m full of plugs and implants that are going to either break down inside me, or have to be surgically removed.  Either way, I’m going to slowly be poisoned for the rest of my life.”  Alice paused for a moment, looking over his face.  She realized her reassurance wasn’t making it easier for him.  “At least you can still look out for the younger ones.  Henry told me that Ox really looks up to you.”

“He’s a good kid, but it’s going to be rough for him.  He cares too much.  It’s going to be a hard lesson to learn in the field.”

“It may not be as much of a detriment as you think.  Things are different now.  You and the others saw to that,” Alice said, trying to give him a smile.  She was happy to have this time with him, and relieved her effort to talk with him was not wasted.  “It must be tough not having a mentor of your own.  I don’t think any of them went through this.”  Alice reached out, about to place her hand on Map’s arm, but quickly withdrew.  “Ox is going to be fine, he had a good teacher.”

Alice paused after her words, watching Map as he looked away.  She followed his gaze, and noticed a few moments after him, that people were looking at them.  Alice shifted on her heels, looking down at her hands, wishing she had kept the glass of champagne.

“You’re leaving after this,” he stated, as if he had just realized this.

“After this meeting.  They are going to take me off base, and that’s that.  Our adventure is over.”  She was a talented Liaison.  Alice had hoped to find work in the private sector, once more.

“I don’t suppose they’ll let me leave.”

“Not likely, you’re property to them.  Some of them.”  Alice was quick to correct herself, trying to remind Map that he wasn’t simply property to everyone.

“It’s funny.  That doesn’t bother me as much as-” Map trailed off.

 Alice didn’t need him to finish.  “I know, but it’ll be a long time still,” she said, trying to reassure him.

Just after she said that, the Administrator approached the pair.

“Sorry to interrupt,” the Administrator said with a smile, “but I have an important conference call starting in a moment.  I wanted to tell you once again how much we all appreciate your hard work and dedication, Map.  The world is a safer place from having you in it.”  The man clapped Map on the shoulder again, and exited the room.  In his wake, the room cleared out.  Map and Alice were left with a few of the others who were almost as reluctant as the pair to see this project come to an end.

Alice watched as Map shifted, though as his eyes came to her face, she looked down to her feet.  She couldn’t bring herself to look in his eyes.

“Good luck,” he said.

“I could say the same to you, but I’m not sure how helpful it would be.  I know you’ll do great with what they let you.”  Alice turned on her heels, about to leave his side, but stopped.  She looked up at him.  Before she could say anything else, Map spoke.

“Thank you.”

“I won’t forget you,” she said.  Alice reached out, squeezing his arm gently.  She was almost as stunned as he was; surprised she had crossed that barrier.  Even if only she would remember Map, it would be one person that wouldn’t allow whom he was to disappear.  She didn’t let him reply – she couldn’t.  It was hard enough as it was.

 Alice met the armed guards just outside of the room, who had been waiting for her.  Without looking back at Map, she spoke to them.

“I’m ready.”

The ride to the city was long. Alice had tried to make small talk with the two guards who escorted her back; one was driving, the other was sitting in the passenger seat, leaving her alone in the back of the vehicle. Her nervous chatter was met with silence, and she soon gave up, resigning herself to stare out the window as they made their way out of the military complex and into the long expanse of the highway that would lead into the city.

With the two guards unresponsive, the trip felt like an eternity. Left with only her thoughts, Alice frowned. She worried for Map, and still couldn’t shake the sadness she was feeling. That was the last time she’d ever see him, and that didn’t sit well with her. It was what she had signed up for, though, and Alice knew this would happen someday.

It wasn’t something she should dwell on, but Alice couldn’t help it. Would Map adjust well to being retired from the field? With a sigh, she leaned against the window, her eyes looking out at the towering buildings that marked the city’s presence.

As they approached her apartment complex, Alice slid out of the vehicle and went around to take her belongings from the trunk.

“A little help here?” She asked the two guards, who had followed her out, after the engine was cut.

“Do we look like porters?”

Alice sighed as she juggled the bags. “Right, fine. Thanks for the ride, then.” She spun, moving to the entranceway of the building. The two men followed her, but said nothing.

As the door to the complex opened automatically, she looked back at the two. “Well–uh, bye?”

One of the two shook his head. Alice thought it was Bill, but it could have been Steve – they both looked too much alike to her. “We have orders to escort you to your apartment.”

Alice looked at the two with exasperation. They insisted on stalking behind her, and yet they couldn’t be bothered to carry some of her bags? “Yeah, fine, whatever. Come on, then.” She grumbled, moving to the lift.

She pressed the button, waiting for the doors to slide open. Alice dragged her bags, barricading herself on one side of the small compartment, with the two large guards filling up the rest. She placed her hand on the scanner, allowing the security recognition software to process her hand print. The lift began to move, though the passengers were unable to feel it.

A ding, followed by a recital of her name came through the speakers, denoting the apartment the lift had open its doors to. There were no corridors in these complexes as the lifts were able to move both horizontal and vertical, opening to an occupant’s home directly.

Alice pulled her bags into the entrance of her apartment, passing out of the lift. Lights within the room had automatically turned on as soon as the lift doors had opened. She continued to drag her bags further into the apartment, giving the two men some room.

“It’s not much – but here we are.” Alice abandoned her bags to approach the two men once more. They had moved to a bare wall, taking residence pressed against it. She stared up, looking between the two while she crossed her arms impatiently. “I’m here in one piece. You guys can leave now.”

“Not until our orders have been completed.” Steve–or Bill, reminded her.

“There were more orders than that? Are you guys going to tell me what they are?” She prodded, her arms still firmly crossed.

The pair remained silent. Evidently their orders didn’t include informing Alice of them. She sighed, moving to the kitchen. The duo followed like her shadow. Every step Alice made was matched by one of their own.

“Well, I’m going to make some coffee. You guys want any?”

Again, the pair remained silent.

“I’m kind of starving, too. The food at the complex parties aren’t that satisfying. Really wanting a pizza – you guys in? We could all kick in some creds and split it.” Alice rambled, still obviously nervous. It was odd they did not leave yet, and she was clearly not comfortable with the pair invading her home.

It looked like Steve, if he was Steve and not Bill, was about to speak. The other guard quickly jabbed him in the ribs with an elbow, silencing him.

Alice responded to the pair with a roll of her eyes. She shook her head, moving into the kitchen area and accessing a panel. The menu options displayed on the screen for Ezio’s Pizzeria, her favourite place to order a pie. After scrolling through the options, Alice tapped swiftly on the screen to choose her pizza, and then shut down the panel.

While she had been busy ordering, one of the guards placed a finger to his ear as he received a call. “Understood.” A single word in response to the orders issued over the comm device.

“You two are going to be pretty sorry you didn’t chip in when you smell it. Ezio’s has the best pizza in the city.” Alice smirked, leaning back against the counter as she eyed the pair. “So, what was that?” She inquired about the orders he received.

One guard gave a gesture toward Alice, leading the other. They approached her far too quickly than she was comfortable with, surrounding her in close proximity.

“You’re coming with us.”

Alice didn’t like that answer. “Where and why?” She demanded to know.

They didn’t answer. The guards grabbed her, each of them holding onto her upper arms in a tight, vice-like grip.

“Hey! Get your hands off of me!” Alice squirmed in their grasp, though it did her little good. Her shorter stature was easily lifted from the ground as the pair started moving towards the door with her in their grasp.

She continued to try and get free, refusing to give up without a fight. As she wriggled in their grasp, Alice swung her legs, making contact with a guard’s shin. Though she kicked as hard as she could, the only response she received was a tightened grasp around her.

One guard encircled her body, holding her tight as the other accessed the panel for the lift’s system. Alice kept trying to get free, though it was to no avail. She screamed as loud as she could, while the pair of guards removed her from her home.

The eyes watching turned their gaze from the monitor system. Her screams fell on deaf ears.

Alice stormed into the Complex, suffering a headache and a bad temper. The guards hadn’t explained to her what was going on, which was what lead to the pain in her head. She had tried to make an escape which had caused one of her over protective companions to knock her unconscious. Alice awoke to find the guards were under directives from the Administrator himself. Even so, that didn’t make the kidnapping, or the feeling of her head splitting, justified.

The Liaison burst into the Hangar, taking control of the place as she had in the past. A scowl was already on her lips, which made quite a few people in the room stand stiffer, snapping to attention.

“You! Get the rig set up! Why the hell wasn’t it already prepped for me?” Alice shouted, her verbal assault, causing one of the men to scramble towards the rig that had been the woman’s for over a decade.

“S-sorry ma’am! Yes, yes ma’am! It’ll be ready in a jiff!”

“Damn well better be,” Alice growled. The Hangar’s disorder and the team not being ready for her was enough to give her a headache, if she didn’t already have one.

True to their word, the team resurrected her rig in short order, and Alice quickly shed her sweater, leaving her in only a tank top. Ports covering her arms were exposed, though the most crucial one was seen after Alice twisted the hair off of the back of her neck and pinned it up.

“Do it,” Alice leaned forward, and held out both of her arms.

The men hesitated, enduring a piercing glare from her before they continued. The rig was a harsh piece of equipment, one of its prices being unpleasant sensations during “the union”, a term that explained the melding of technology from the rig with the speed of a Liaison’s neurobiology. The men flinched more than Alice did, however, as each of the pressurized connections was heard clicking into place.

“Damn it Map, you started before me.”

The rig came to life, syncing with Alice, and she could see her Operative’s position as well as an enemy holding position in front of Map. Over her HUD, she could tell the creature was registering as a level two. The sensors detected shots fired, likely from Map’s rifle. The energy signature of the enemy had not lowered much, which made Alice mutter to herself. What followed was something that made her pause.

“No. I don’t believe it,” Alice spoke to herself. She was witnessing Map attacking the creature with a melee weapon, in close proximity of it instead of the ranged effort. Melee weapons would take more energy, especially the way he was attacking with that axe.

“Well that was stupid,” Alice spoke, opening her comm-link to Map.

“Got the job done. One down,” replied Map. Alice snorted at the response, not exactly approving.

“And how do you feel?” She tried to drive her point home.

“Tired.”

Alice sighed. “I don’t need to remind you that you aren’t really up for this, do I? You keep up this pace and you’ll be lucky to take down another one. Let’s do this one like all the others. What do you see around you?” She had a shadow of the land over her HUD, and could use satellite links to guide him, however, Map’s eyes were invaluable in aiding his mission.

“Rubble mostly.” There was a pause before Map continued, “There isn’t a structure without damage. Is the whole area this bad?”

Alice scanned, her eyes flicking over the areas displayed. “Just about. It looks like they were out to cause as much damage as possible.” Buildings were toppled, rubble along streets. The area was unrecognizable as to what it had looked like before the attacks.
“What’s the analysis?”

Alice kept monitoring her HUD. The screens continued to update, the side of her displays a live-feed from the other stations within the Hangar, which sent all information they could gather for her. Her eyes narrowed at the response she had received from the team. “It’s an anomaly, but they don’t know what to make of it yet.”

“Trying to get our attention?”

The words flew out before she could stop them. “They did that by taking out Napkin.”Damn. She knew she shouldn’t have said that. Alice quickly continued, trying to move on from what she had just revealed. “We’re both in it now, time to do what we do. Finish your survey and get moving. You’ve been in one place too long.”

Alice performed her own appraisal, continuing to pay attention to the HUD and displays that fed the information from their team. She let out a whistle, looking over the destruction. Alice could only imagine what it was like to be there, in the middle of it all. She didn’t envy Map. Bodies littered the streets, twisted under the rubble of the city. None of the bodies gave off heat signatures. Corpses, all of them.

“Scan the hell out of that area!” She shouted in the Hangar, to the team, “We’re damn well not adding Map to that body count.”

Something spiked her energy readings. The temperature was rising close to his area. She let out a small sound, feeling extremely grateful that something was on their side. “Map, can you feel that?”

“The heat?”

“Yeah, there’s a small fire not far from your location. It would be a good place to lay low – you’d be harder to find there.” It would also buy the team some time to try and gauge the creatures that were left, she thought to herself.

“How’s the assessment coming?”

“Slowly. A few things aren’t adding up,” Alice grumbled, still trying to piece together the puzzle she was given.

“Such as?”

“Usually there’s a pattern,” Alice explained. “The creatures hit and cause a lot of damage until we stop them. There’s no target this time. Usually they go for a building or a specific block and the creatures are usually very similar.”

“Sure.”

Alice continued, “Not only is this the largest attack we’ve seen, but it’s spread across the whole city and we’ve identified at least five specific types of creatures.”

“What’s it mean?”

Her eyes paused for a moment from the displays to look over the Hangar. Men were scrambling at consoles, and more poured in to help. “Not sure yet. They’ve called in everyone, this place is a zoo. For now, just head for the heat; southwest of your current location. Find a place and sit tight, I’ll get back to you when I find out more. Your landing and outburst caused enough of a stir for the platoons to get the evacuation finished. Whatever this is all about, you have a civilian-free city to work in.”

“Good to know. I’m heading towards the fire now – keep me posted. I don’t want to sit around too long and wind up a target.”

Alice faintly grinned at that. She had the same thought as Map before he had said it. “I hear ya,” she said before signing off. Map always seemed to appreciate it when she could give him some solitude, and she couldn’t blame him. Alice couldn’t recall the last time she had some privacy of her own. The Hangar was usually filled with personnel, and she was rarely anywhere else in the complex. Even so, Map was normally monitored at all times. Her thoughts focused back to the task at hand. The Hangar was chaotic, personnel filling it to the brim. Alice was waiting to hear some information on why the creatures had changed their tactics as she continued to monitor Map’s line.

Worry shadowed her features as she looked over the scans of the nearby terrain where Map was located. While Alice was proud that she was working with the best operative the program had ever seen, she worried that this time the mission may be too much for even Map to handle. She watched the blip on the display move towards the coordinates she had sent. Alice hoped the fire would do some good for Map, providing some safety to mask his heat signature.

“Hang in there, Map.” She murmured.

Alice could hear a crash over the comm-link. She scrunched her nose, placing the sound with the likelihood it had been Map’s foot bursting a door open.

“I’m in,” she heard Map inform her.

Alice rolled her eyes. “Graceful. Find a place to rest, the boffins are still working on your next move.”

“Can I make a suggestion?”

A smirk crawled onto her lips as she heard his question. “You can make it, but you know what that’s worth.” Alice lowered her voice, a serious tone overcoming it. “Stay sharp. Their signals are doing something.”

“Doing something?”

She was already looking over the reading, a frown developing on her face. Alice tapped at the arm of her rig, her eyes fixated on the displays. Something wasn’t adding up, and it was bothering her. Well, more than something. The counts were off.
“Hold on.” Alice cut Map off, slight irritation rising in her voice. “This doesn’t look right.”

“What?”

“Hang on. I’ll be right back.” She turned off her mic and flicked the switch to release her from the rig and station. The familiar pressurized noise filled the room, and she tilted back in the chair to look at Henry. He and the rest of the team were in a heated discussion with the specialists. Alice knew something was off – the specialists wouldn’t have flooded the Hangar otherwise.

“Henry!” Alice yelled, craning her neck backwards, towards him. “Henry, take a look at this!”

“I’m a little busy,” he replied, gesturing at the specialists.

Alice scowled, intent on him seeing the malfunctioning display, whether she had to drag him over to the station or not. “Just take a look, something’s wrong.”

She finally had his attention, and Henry hurried over to her. “With Map?”

The Liaison shook her head. “No, he’s holding up, but look at the signals.” She gestured towards the displays, pointing out dots, as well as something else.

“What is it?” Henry looked confused, as he thought he saw everything clearly. The asset was marked on the display, as well as the creatures.

Alice continued to point at the screens, “The display isn’t picking up all the targets. There are only seven on the screen, still gathered together.”

“We are still working on figuring out why they are behaving so uncharacteristically. You’ll have to be patient.” Henry tried to move away, but Alice stopped him.

“That’s not what I’m saying.” Alice replied in frustration. “There were nine, two of them blinked out. They had been heading to the landing site, then they started heading towards the neighbourhood where Map is, and now they’re gone.” Her grip lessened, and she dropped her hand.

“Maybe Map—”

Alice swiftly cut him off. “He’s by the fire, lying low like he was ordered. He only took the one out at the landing site.” She gestured towards the area on her display, refusing to let the issue go. Alice could feel something was very wrong, and she’d fight whomever she had to in order to get Map the help he needed.

As the pair assessed the screens, two lights blinked in and headed towards Map’s direction. Alice was quick to turn her mic back on, “Map. You may have incoming.”

“May? How many?”

There was a slight pause before Alice spoke up. Her worry transmitted over the frequency as she responded, “I can’t say for sure, but it looks like two groups of two.”

“What’s going on over there?”

Alice was on all fours on the ground, tools scattered around her. As she pulled open the access panel, she responded to Map.
“Technical difficulties,” a muffled sound followed as the mic picked up the sounds of wires brushing together while she was deep within the terminal’s inner workings. “All I have is four of them moving to your location, then not showing up on our screen. I’m running a diagnostic but everything seems fine on this end.” Alice couldn’t find any loose connections. All of the wires were linked properly, and nothing was missing or shorted out.

“What’s the ETA?”

“That’s a great question. Could be as soon as five, but they shouldn’t be able to pinpoint you with that fire so close,” Alice replied, hoping that would indeed be the case.

“I’m taking up a defensive position.”

Alice had already replaced the access panel and slid back into the rig, connecting herself to the chair in time to spot a heat signature that was moving towards the houses. The fire was traveling, and headed towards Map.

“Do you see it?” Alice asked Map quickly, making sure he knew the flames were drawing near.

“Yeah – I’m on the move.”

The sensors did pick up the heat signature from the flames, and yet it was still glitching when it came to locating each creature. “Still no sign of your targets. Stay sharp.”

Map didn’t respond. Her discomfort grew as more time passed. Reports of shots fired scrolled over the screen. Alice leaned forward, anxiously awaiting a reply from Map. Finally, one came in.

“Alice.”

She already knew what he was going to say. Alice was frustrated and confused. The sensors should be picking up the creatures, and yet they weren’t. How was it possible? “I’ve got nothing Map, just you.”

“That’s not comforting. I’ve got one down and one – mad.”

Her fingers flew over the controls on the arms of the rig. Alice’s mind was focused on the screens as she brought up the diagnostic reports to try and troubleshoot the issue with the sensors. “You better take care of it and get moving. The other two won’t be far behind.” Her eyes strayed from the sensor reports to Map’s vital signs. Both his heart rate and respiratory rate were fairly high. “And your vitals are still tachy, try to calm down.”

Alice tracked Map’s movement within the structure while the team scrambled to figure out why the sensors weren’t picking up the creatures near the operative. Shots were fired once more, and Alice found herself sucking in some air, tensely waiting on hearing something from Map. Even though she couldn’t pick up the creatures, she knew by the weapon discharge (and his vital signs) that her operative was in combat and they were close at hand.

The sensors picked up more shots fired, and damage taken to Map’s forearm. Alice held her breath, intensely watching the display as the fight continued. She was simultaneously checking back and forth with the team, over the displays, to try and determine the glitch that was keeping the creatures from being detected.

“Damn it Map, get out of there,” Alice muttered to herself as she saw the heat signature from the fire move around the home.
Two large energy signatures erupted, one shortly after the other.

“Grenades. Good thinking, Map. Hopefully it will be enough to finish them off.” Alice seemed to continue the muttering dialogue, though Map wasn’t responding. It was unclear to everyone else in the Hangar whether she was transmitting, or just mumbling to herself as she did often. The Liaison was one to get caught up in her work.

It didn’t seem to be enough. The displays read out Map’s vitals, which were off the charts.

“Tachycardia…tachypnea…” Alice muttered again. Map had gone tachy once more, and this time she could piece it together to pain.

Finally, a voice was heard. “Alice.”

“I’m here,” she tried her best to sound reassuring.

“Do you have eyes on the rest of them?”

“Yeah, for now.” The comment was a slightly biting, her frustrations leaking through again about the malfunctions.

“I’ve got to do something about my arm. Let me know if there is any change.”

“I always do.”

“Damn it!”  Alice hit the rig with her fists, frustration still coursing through her.

A few of the technicians in the Hangar ducked their heads and avoided looking directly at Alice.  They had been chewed out too many times to count.  She still couldn’t figure out why the satellites weren’t picking up all of the creatures.

The Hangar was quickly becoming a mess; piles of wires and open panels littered the floor.  Alice was waist deep in them, her head ducking into the terminal and popping back out to keep an eye on the displays.

Her com-link crackled to life.  “Any updates?” Map inquired.

“Nothing yet,” Alice replied.  “The remaining five are still in the same spot.”

“Where?”

Alice squinted up, twisting her body so she could eye the displays better.  “North of your current position and west of your drop point, in the old city center.”

“Any word on what they’re doing?”

“No,” Alice sighed.  “Satellites are blind over the spot and any drones sent in have been destroyed.”

“That’s not a concern to anyone?”

Alice grumbled before replying.  “We’ve been trying to fix what we can from here.  You’re the only one who can get a visual.”

“I’ve got my objective then?”

“Your objective never changed.”

“I’m off,” replied Map.

Alice slid up to the rig, settling in long enough to type in some commands.  “Sending coordinates.”

She crawled back into the terminal’s open port, clicking her tongue and grumbling as she manually checked each of the connections.  Nothing seemed wrong, and that was the issue.  If there was a problem on this end, she could fix it, control it. But, there wasn’t anything wrong with each of the connections or stations in the Hangar.

Henry kept reading from the schematics, “…and you should see terminal connection 450-Z34.”

Alice spit the flashlight she was holding in her mouth out.  “This is ridiculous!”  Her voice echoed from inside of the terminal.  “Everything checks out.”

Henry lowered the tablet where the schematics were displayed on, eyeing Alice.  “There has to be something.  All our readings are affected.”

“And what does the Administrator have to say about it?”

Henry leaned against part of the terminal, “Nothing I know of.  Last I heard he was in a conference with the Board.”

Alice popped out from the terminal, sighing and pushing herself up to a sitting position.  She wiped grease off her hands.  “Well, the problem’s not here.  Satellites?”

“Work fine everywhere but over the targets,” Henry replied.

Alice looked thoughtful, pausing from collecting her tools.  “So – it’s got to be somethingthey are doing.”

They have never been able to do anything like that before,” sneered Henry.  He placed the tablet down and crossed his arms.

Alice shrugged, “There have never been sixteen of them before, either.”  She resumed gathering her tools, tucking them away.  “I’ll clean this up.  Go see what you can find out.”

Henry nodded, handing Alice the tablet.  “No promises, but I’ll try.”  He walked out of the Hangar in search of information.

Alice had meticulously put away the tools and replaced all of the panels of the terminal.  Henry had returned in a shorter amount of time than expected.

“Well?” Alice asked, looking over Henry.

He shook his head, “No good.  I couldn’t find out anything else.”

Alice let out a sigh.  “Really?  Nothing at all?”

“Zilch.  Sorry.”

Annoyance was clear on her face, though she slid back into the rig in order to monitor Map closer.  She waved at Henry to go elsewhere.

“Fine.  Could you try and help the rest of them clean this place up?  I have to get back to Map.”

Henry gave her a mock salute before moving towards the specialists and technicians.  After almost tripping over some exposed wires, he inwardly conceded the Hangar needed some clearing.

“You stopped?”  She asked Map as she noticed his location on the display had been stagnant.

“Just catching my breath.  How’s the Hangar?”

“Still a mess.”  She muttered.  While her terminal had been taken care of, the rest of the stations had their wires and panels strewn about.

“And the targets?”

“Haven’t moved as far as I can tell.”

“I’m going to scope it out and report before I engage.”

“By the book.  Sounds good.  Be careful Map,” Alice half-whispered the last bit.  It was hard for her to conceal her worry.  She didn’t get a reply.

Alice sighed slightly, after cutting the com-link for a few minutes.  Was it so strange for her to care?  They had worked together for so long, and she was afraid this mission was just too much for either of them to handle.  He may have been the best operative the program had ever seen, but he was still only one person.  There were too many creatures this time, and she was afraid Map wouldn’t get out of this one alive.

Her com-link crackled to life, except there seemed to be interference.

“…ice”

“How’s it look?” She began checking over the relay signals, trying to clear up the interference.

“..ot sure.  …four…out…open.  From…ook…to be class ones, …upright, …taller…me.  …building something.  ….you make…it?”

Alice tried to piece together what he had said.  “Four?  My visuals are still a bit buggy, but I have five targets in the vicinity.”

Map replied slower this time, likely realizing there was interference.  “What…about…object?”

Alice scanned over, and still she wasn’t getting anything.  The static wasn’t clearing up much, either.  With a huff of frustration, she replied, “Can’t read anything.  I’m getting to the bottom of this – passing you to the secondary station.”

“Tripp,” Alice called out as she unplugged herself from the rig’s connections.  “I need you to monitor Map for now.  I’ll be back after I find out what the hell is going on here.”

The man nodded, sliding into the secondary terminal’s rig.  He didn’t question Alice, and most of them knew better than to try.

Alice stormed out of the Hangar, heading towards the Administrator’s office.  She flew past the security desk, not stopping as the clerk tried to intercept her.

“Miss!  No, stop!  You can’t–”

Alice wanted answers.  While it was risky to leave Map to Tripp (or anyone other than herself), she had to get to the bottom of this.  Her operative was injured and the chances of him succeeding and being recovered was becoming more and more slim.  None of this was adding up, and she was tired of security clearances and restrictions.  Map’s life was hanging in the balance, now more than any other previous mission.

The sound of footsteps quickly pounding on the hard floors was coming closer.  The clerk was trying to intercept Alice before she reached her target.  She quickened her pace again, moving into the outer room and barging straight towards the office of the Administrator.  The secretary’s mouth was left hanging open as she watched Alice barrel past her.

“What’s going on?!” Alice demanded.  Her fists were curled at her sides, and she stared at the Administrator defiantly.  Inwardly, Alice had shocked herself with how audacious her actions were and tried to not lose her nerve.  Don’t back down.  Look him in the eye.  Get some answers for Map.

Monitors covered the walls, in what appeared to be a conference in session.  The Administrator exhaled, his ire rising.  He had turned to face her, his hands folding calmly in his lap.

The clerk and secretary tried to silently push their way in, torn between interrupting him and trying to remove the disturbance that was Alice.  They looked apologetically towards the Administrator.  As the clerk tried to reach for Alice’s wrist, she took a step further towards the large desk the Administrator was behind to dodge his grasp.

He dismissed the other two with a wave, staring calmly at the Liaison.  “Alice, as you can see, I am in the middle—”

She slammed her palms down on his desk, leaning towards him.  “I don’t give a fuck.”

The Administrator’s lips drew tight, narrowing his eyes at Alice as she continued.

“Our systems are still not working and Map has reported that they are building something.  Couple that with the size of the attack and the creatures playing hide and seek with our sensors and something bad is happening.”  She pointed at him now, “I think you know more than you’re telling us.  Map is injured and has five more to deal with.  I need to know what you know.”

“That’s insubordination,” he replied, his voice calm as he quickly cut the live broadcast to the rest of the Board.

She pressed forward again, defiantly.  “You going to fire me again?”

His eyes betrayed the calmness of his reply as they seethed in anger.  “I could have you shot.”

“Fine, do that – after you tell me what I need to know to get my operative home safe.”  She replied flippantly at his threat.

The Administrator smiled tightly, leaning back in his large seat as he watched her.  “And what makes you think I care if he gets home safe?”

“I doubt that you do, but he is the only tool you currently have, and he’s standing between them and us.”

The Administrator pushed out of his chair in one smooth move, walking around his desk.  His movement was slow, deliberate.  It was clearly a well-practiced move, meant to intimidate his opponents.  Nonchalantly, he looked to the cuffs of his tailored shirt, fixing the creases and dusting at their edges.  As she watched him, Alice felt a little queasy.  Still, she couldn’t lose her nerve, and she stood a little stiffer.

“I wish I could tell you more,” the Administrator continued in his calm, well-groomed demeanour, “but honestly anything dealing with these things is mostly guesswork.  I can tell you that our intel suggests that the reason the attack is so large is because it’s their final push – a gamble to overwhelm us.”

Alice crossed her arms, still not satisfied with his answers.  “And the structure they’re building?”

He shrugged his shoulders fluidly, surprising Alice with the casual response.  “No idea.  It clearly has something to do with our own systems acting up, but that’s an observation of my own.”

Alice nearly lost it.  “There is nothing wrong with the systems, and you know it!”  She accused, her hackles raised by his own subtle accusations.  “What are we going to do?”

He wanted her out of his inner sanctum.  The Administrator was excellent at reading people, as was part of his job.  His reply sought to cut her to the core.  “My suggestion is to do your job.  If you want him to survive you should man your station.”  His tight smile grew as he gestured towards the door.

Alice’s eyes widened.  He had gotten through her defiant courage, as she was reminded where she should be.  She broke out into a sprint towards the Hangar, flying through each passageway towards the area.

The Administrator simply watched her dash out.  He smoothly slid into his seat, resuming the conference with the Board.  As he turned to face the monitors, a well-controlled smile loomed over his face.

Alice bolted down the corridors towards the Hangar.  She whipped around a corner, almost knocking over a receptionist and a military guard.  With no time to stop, she didn’t even shout an apology.  She was too focused with getting back to her operative.

“Map?”  Alice huffed, speaking into the com-link after jacking in to the rig and taking back control from Tripp.

“Yeah.”

The interference was still distorting the connection, “Just checking in.  Ready?”

The reply was static.  Whether he heard her or not, she knew he would be as ready as he could be.  Alice adjusted the displays, expanding Map’s monitoring system for half of one screen.  His vitals were displayed prominently; heart rate, respiratory rate, temperature, oxygen saturation levels, nociceptor levels, hormone levels and vital organ status were constantly updating on the screen.

On the other screens the area was being surveyed along with the creatures that were picked up by the satellites.  Five creatures were displayed, however she didn’t discount there being more.

“Compensate for wind at thirty-seven kilometers per hour, north-east direction,” Alice instructed Map.  Alice watched his heart beats slow to a calmer state and his breathing paused on the display.  The gunshot detection radiated from Map’s location, indicating he had fired a shot.  One of the creature’s signatures dimmed, and Alice could tell Map had been successful.

Cheering, she spoke into the com-link, hoping he would hear some of her words.  “Got it!  Keep it going, four left from what we’re picking up here.  You got this.”

Another shot was fired, the detector radiating once more, and again a creature’s signature dimmed on her display.  The whole Hangar was focused on this now, and a simultaneous cheer rang out.

“Wait—Map, watch out!” Alice yelled into the com-link as she saw a much larger signature approach her operative’s location.  The static she received in return wasn’t good.

“Tripp!” Alice called out, “Get back to working on the interference with the com-link.  I want the static cleared, pronto!”

“Yes ma’am!”

A barrage of gunshots were detected, but the massive creature kept closing in on Map.  Alice exhaled a breath she had not realized she was holding as she watched her operative dodge from the attack in time.

She silently prayed he would come out of this in one piece.

Map’s vitals flashed over the displays, between the bursts of interference.  Warnings were triggered, indicating the operative’s vitals were at dangerous points.  Shock was setting in, and the remote release of the stim-pack wasn’t working.  Alice felt helpless as she monitored Map’s crashing vitals, continuously talking over the com-link in an attempt to usher him back to consciousness.  The static continued to cut in and out, and her efforts finally worked, as she heard a reply through the static.

“Alice,” Map’s voice was weakly heard.  “Alice… don’t know… … … hear me, but I … …. rough shape.  … …. …. can move, but … hurts.  …. … ….. send …. …… …. clean up if I can’t finish this.  …. ….. two ….…… …….. ……..still building that thing.”  The static continued to crackle in and out, however she understood most of what Map was saying.

“Tripp,” Alice spoke into the com-link after switching channels to her team.  “We need maintenance called in for the site.  Need a clean up.”

“Deployment of maintenance estimated for twenty-three hundred hours,” Tripp informed Alice, after setting up the rendezvous.

Alice looked astonished as she saw the movement over her display.  Map was slowly travelling towards the area where the creatures’ structure was located.

“Be careful, Map.  I’m blind around that area – still having a lot of issues picking up accurate readings around that site.”  She still wasn’t certain how much of it made it through to Map.

Between the interference, Alice could decipher Map was back in combat.  She wasn’t certain how many creatures were left around the structure as the satellites remained blocked from accurate readings around the location.

Alice winced, watching his heart rate and breathing take a large spike.  Epinephrine levels also rose in readings.  It wasn’t long, however, before all readings went silent.

A full disconnection occurred, and no signals or communication were being transmitted or received.  She felt her grip on the rig tighten, and the intensity of her helpless feeling grew.

“Please Map… you have to come out of this,” Alice whispered softly.

The Cleaner Squad was on the way to the site, though she hadn’t heard anything about recovering the asset, which caused her worry.  Another operative had been activated for duty and was being sent in with the Cleaners.

“Ox,” The Liaison spoke into the com-link.  “Find him.  Bring him back,” she almost pleaded.

“I’ll try, Alice.  But it doesn’t look very g–”

“I know,” she cut him off with a grim tone.

The static cleared, and the disruptions ended.  Map’s vitals flashed over the screen, though the findings were poor.  He was crashing fast, and no amount of stim-packs would help right now.

“Map, Map.  I need you to listen to me.  The troops are on their way, and Ox is coming to get you.  Just hang in there, hold it together.  You’re going to come home soon.  You did really well, and I’m proud of you.”

One last breath and he flat-lined.

“Ox!” Alice cried into the com-link.  “Hurry it up!”

She knew already, though.  It was too late.

The doors to the Hangar slid open, and she could feel the shadow of two imposing figures loom over her.

“Terminate the signal, Alice.  You’re coming with us.”

Alice felt tears well up in her eyes.  She shook her head in disbelief that it could end this way.  It was inevitable; operatives didn’t retire and they didn’t grow old.  They were soldiers, sent in to finish a job, and the job was one that always took their life.  She had been hoping Map would have been the exception, but it was a fate neither of them could walk away from after signing their lives away.

Her terminal went black, and the pressurized sounds of the rig’s disconnection filled the quiet that had been hanging within the room.  All eyes were on them as Alice stood and lifted her head high.  She walked towards the exit of the Hangar, pride filling her eyes.

The mission was successful.

They had won.

The men escorted her outside of the compound where the car awaited, prepared for her final destination. She had to shield her eyes from the bright sun as she gazed up into the sky.  Alice smiled, her thoughts on Map and all of the years, all of the successful missions.  A loud bang filled the air, echoing in the alleyway between the military buildings.  It was followed by a thud before the hum of the car’s engine was the only sound left.

We did it, Map.

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