”Tell me what happened.”
If Director Karen West was shocked, or angry, she never showed it. Her expression was concentrated and carefully neutral. She was just in her forties, but she felt very old today. The four surviving agents of operation “Price Money” sat around the large table in the situation room. Too many empty chairs, thought Sarah.
“I don’t know! They showed up at the emergency evac all bloody and—“
“Thank you, Mister Bower. I was asking Sergeant Mahoney and Prescott.”
Mike Bower had driven the van and now nervously fumbled with the legs of his pants as he stopped talking and lowered his head in embarrassment. Next to him sat Sophie Shaw, a slight woman. Shaw had been on comms in the back and was now quietly sobbing into her hands, the chestnut bob of her hair hiding her face. Kate Prescott and Sarah Mahoney were the only survivors of the ground team, as far they knew. There had been three women among the perimeter unit. They might be alive and in the hands of the Syndicate. They didn’t have the intel.
”We successfully infiltrated the compound and apprehended three of the targets with no casualties on our side, five on their side. Moreau wasn’t there. While we detained the suspects and inquired for the whereabouts of Moreau, radio communications got interrupted and a large number of Syndicate forces stormed the Compound. They used riot gas and large numbers to overwhelm us. As far as I could tell, everyone except Agent Mahoney and me were KIA.
“Moreau was behind this,“ said Sarah, anger in her voice. “She wasn’t there. It was a trap. She eliminated her competition and wiped us out in one damn swoop.”
“Even though I see the logic in that, let us not jump to conclusions, Miss Mahoney,” said West.
“I will fucking kill her for what she did to Lilly.”
“Agent Zimmerman?“, asked Director West with raised eyebrows.
“She was there, and she was already... enslaved.”
There was an awful pause.
“I’ll have to make some calls, you are dismissed,” said Director West.
”Yes, Karen West here. Mister Secretary, I need to—“
“No Sir, I need you to listen to me! Almost my entire division was wiped out! I have spoken with the Director of the NSA, and they are working on the hush-up, but I simply need more personnel, and I need it right now! As I have stated numerous times, my division deals with a serious threat to national security! This has grown well beyond a mere matter of human trafficking, and should—“
“With all due respect—“
“That is not at all sufficient! There are m—“
“Yes, Sir. Three weeks. Thank you. Good day too you, too.”
Sarah sat in the empty lunchroom when Kate walked in, bandage around her neck. Sarah was filling out a requisitions order for armour-penetrating bullets. It had taken her the better part of an hour to get through the address section. The fluorescent light hurt her eyes.
“What happened to your neck?”, Sarah asked.
”Low-velocity ricochet. Peeled off some skin and tissue. Could have been bad, but I got lucky. As is, no biggie. Agent Shaw fixed me up. She does data analysis but she’s an ex-military nurse. How about that?”
She paused. ”Mahoney… Sarah… do you want to talk?”
Sarah took a sip of the Red Bull she had gotten from the vending machine. It tasted awful. It was her third. She was jittery.
“Sarah? Come on…”
“Nothing to talk about,” said Sarah.
Kate looked like she saw a ghost. “Really? Really?! Nothing to talk about?“ she exclaimed and threw up her hands in a show of disbelief. “You can’t seriously mean that!”
“I don’t want to talk about, okay?”
“No, not okay! I can’t have you be a traumatized wreck, and what happened there was enough to fuck up everyone and their fucking dog!”
Sarah took another sip of her drink and closed her eyes.
“We’ll get Moreau and we’ll stop the Syndicate, that’s all there is to it”, said Sarah. “Happy now? I talked the talk. Now leave me alone.”
Kate opened her mouth, then took a deep breath and sighed. “Sarah, please, don’t do this,” she said and placed her hand on Sarah’s shoulder, sitting down next to her. “I know we haven’t been close before, but you need someone to talk, and everyone else is… I’m the only one here right now. Let me help you.”
“I just need to be alone right now”, said Sarah.
Kate sighed and stood up again. “I knew Lilly, too, you know?” For a moment, there was bitterness in her voice.
Sarah looked at Kate and said nothing. Kate’s expression had turned harder. After a moment, she relaxed. “I’ll be there if you want to talk, okay?” she said carefully, turned around, and left.
Sarah watched her leave the room. Her eyes lingered on the empty doorframe. She sobbed.
”I’m sorry, but could you please tell me what is going on,“ said Mike Bower. “I didn’t even get briefed, yet!”
”What,” said Kate in flat disbelief.
“I… I just got transferred Monday. I was scheduled to be briefed first thing today but then all this commotion happened and they told me to drive the getaway van in case of contingencies. And you know… some itsy bitsy contingencies fucking happened.”
“You are talking about the death of forty human beings, many of which I knew personally.”
“Oh God, fuck! Sorry. Miss Prescott. Fuck. I’m so sorry! And sorry for swearing!”
He was gesturing wildly, eyes wide in embarrassment, then caught himself and took a deep breath.
“Listen. This is going entirely off the rails, so please just let me start over.”
“…Sure,” said Kate, arms crossed in front of her.
“I am qualified to do my job. I’m not stupid. Otherwise, I wouldn’t be working with you guys. I am an expert in surveillance and reconnaissance, which is why Sophie, ahem, Miss Shaw recommended me for a transfer to your division.”
He blushed a bit. Kate decided to ignore it.
”I could even ‘hack the planet’ for you. But please never call it that. I am aware of my strengths and weaknesses. One of my weaknesses is not saying stupid hurtful shit. Sorry. I’m not a bumbling unqualified idiot that doesn’t know how to do his job. I’m an expert in his field who sometimes doesn’t know how to talk good and was given a job he’s only nominally qualified to do… driving an escape vehicle in an unknown context, I mean. Understand what I mean?”
“I don’t want to be put into that situation again, so may I ask what is that you do here?”
”Thank you for that explanation, Mike. I won’t say that I’m not a bit relieved. First, let me tell you that I don’t care at all how you talk. In the presence of the Director, however, you should really try talking as good as you can. Get it?
Bower smiled at that.
”Good. This is your briefing. What I’m about to tell you is classified top secret and sharing this information with anyone not cleared on that level is high treason. Buckle up, it gets heavy from here, and I won’t be sugar-coating anything.”
Mike leaned forward in his seat.
“This division is part of the federal intelligence network. We investigate domestic cases of what started as human trafficking.
“Quite the secret base for that.”
“Just let me finish. In the early twenties, human trafficking rings developed and co-opted techniques of brain-washing and mind control to make their victims more obedient. They would use these techniques to make the people they sold into slaves that didn’t resist or try to evade their captivity. Those slaves were used for work, entertainment and sex.
”They murdered them for sport or let them fight.”
“Fuck, I need to shut up.”
“Yes you do.”
“In the twenties, these brain-washed slaves were low-functioning and sometimes near catatonic. Many died during the brain-washing. Rescued individuals took years to recover basic function, sometimes they were unable to recover at all. It was in that time that our division was founded in secret by Director West.
“From the outset, one of our directives was to limit the proliferation of these mind control methods. The way we try to accomplish this is a huge cover-up campaign. All deaths, injuries and crimes connected to our cases will be falsified or omitted in official reports. We work in conjunction with the NSA, who have access to all federal and state criminal and public records as well as all devices in the US that are connected to the internet, and to most that aren’t.”
Bower was touching his temples with his outstretched hands, brows furrowed. ”The mind-controllers got better at it, didn’t they?”
“Yes. Yes they did. Make no mistake, there were always techniques to brain-wash people that worked well and left the victim high-functioning. The Russians did it in the cold war, as far back as the fifties. We did it, too, by the way. But that takes many months of intensive work—the work being intense physical and psychological torture. But four years ago, something changed.
“A particular human trafficker by the name of Florence Moreau was able to turn people into high-functioning slaves in no more than two days! Someone is missing for a weekend and comes back fully brain-washed, thinking and wanting what Madame Moreau wants them to. Scared yet?”
Bower just swallowed.
“It gets worse. As you can imagine, the possible ways to abuse this technology are virtually endless, and hard to detect. We know from the unhealed injection scars of victims that were captured early that some form of mildly invasive procedure is used. The scars heal quickly and in almost all cases without trace. We don’t know anything more about their methods. No victim could ever be made to talk, and we tried everything, including all the nasty stuff. They are absolutely devoted to their Masters. They’d rather die. The call themselves obedient slaves and they mean it.”
“So we don’t know how it works?”
“We do know how it works. We just don’t know how they make it work. It’s…”
She hesitated just a moment.
“It’s sexual pleasure. The victim’s brain is somehow rewired to experience sexual pleasure from obeying. It’s more complex than that—there’s also lots of forced association and inhibition removal, but that’s at the core of it all.”
“We’ve had many small victories, and have successfully purged hundreds of slaves from positions in public office, government agencies, and high-ranking businesses. Remember the scandal around the leadership staff of Microsoft? Yeah. But it’s been an uphill struggle to say the least. Since our work is supposed to be invisible, even to our own government, we can’t become too large an entity ourselves. We are an elite team, but we are small, and we can barely keep up with the enemy.”
She drew a breath.
“However, there has been one recent breakthrough. Two days ago, for the first time, we got word on one suspected device that was used to brainwash people. We did get some intel, but far less than we’d hoped. Regrettably, the operation to recover it went bust and the Agent got compromised.”
”So, let me get on thing straight: They can use the brain-washing technology to infiltrate society on a massive scale. Doing that scales quadratically as more brain-washed people gets you more access to brain-wash more and so on. Is this what is happening right now?”
”Perfect. Fucking perfect! That’s fucking super-villain stuff!”
“They got themselves a brand,” she said bitterly, “They call themselves the ‘Syndicate’”
“Are you fucking kidding me? Tell me we’ve got anything against them!”
“The intel I mentioned. Our agent was sending out a constant data stream before she was… compromised. It led us to a meeting between the heads of the biggest human trafficking rings with Moreau. This was our chance to stop both Florence Moreau and her competitors, who could otherwise potentially fill the power vacuum she would leave. We dispatched almost all of our operatives to capture or kill them. It should have been overkill, but we wanted to avoid any… contingencies.”
”Welcome to the team. You have become a much more valuable asset by virtue of scarcity, I’m afraid.”
“Fuck. FUCK!” He threw his hands up, ”Well, at least it can’t get any worse.”
The door of the briefing room flew open. Director West entered, followed by Sarah and Shaw.
“I wish you hadn’t said that,” Kate mumbled.
Two days earlier:
Lilly Zimmerman put on the bugged leather jacket. Cameras in the buttons, microphone membrane and wiring sewn directly into the cloth.
”I know I seemed all confident in the briefing, but I’m fucking scared, you know?”, she said.
Sarah was leaning against the wall next to the mirror, her face full of sorrow. Lilly hated seeing her this way.
“Then don’t do it, Lilly! You don’t have to do this!” she said, her voice coarse with frustration.
Lilly stayed calm as she replied. “Who else, then? Kate Prescott? Lorraine Kelly? None of you could lie yourselves out of an open box. Least of all you. That’s what I love about you, baby. You’re always so transparent.”
Sarah swallowed, her eyes avoiding Lilly’s.
“I’m the only one who has any experience doing undercover work.” Lilly continued with a sad smirk and a shrug.
”No, you’re not! Miller could do it. He did undercover work before”, Sarah snapped.
She looked at Sarah with a raised eyebrow. “Miller lacks the assets,” she said and squeezed her breasts. “No boys allowed.“ She came close and braided her fingers behind Sarah’s neck. They touched foreheads and closed their eyes, to be as close as they could. For a long moment, neither spoke. She listened to Sarah softly breathing, felt her skin against her own, smooth and warm.
Lilly sighed inwardly. She wished she could help Sarah, make her feel better about this. There had always been a part of Sarah that she hadn’t been able to reach. Lilly knew she couldn’t force it. She knew she had to give it time. Someday, they’d get there, and she’d be there for Sarah when the day came.
“I’ll be back tomorrow. This has worked a million times before. My cover is airtight. The NSA makes some real good fake IDs.”
She pulled back her head and looked at Sarah. “What?”
“Nine times. Not a million.”
“At least they taught you to count real good in the navy before they kicked you out.” If she had been anyone else saying this, she would have been in trouble. But she wasn’t anyone else. Lilly leaned back in and kissed her. Sarah pulled her in, her strong hands tightly around her. Lilly put her hand on Sarah’s cheek as Sarah squeezed her. It was wet where a tear had rolled down it. She felt Sarah’s lips against hers, and they were hot and unrelenting like her, capturing her and not letting go. She felt her pain in that moment, how much she wanted it to last forever. And it lasted a long time.
When the kiss finally broke, Lilly cleared her throat. After a pause she firmly said: ”Nine times is plenty. I’m gonna be fine!” and for a moment, she wondered which one of them needed more assuring.
Sarah seemed to think about something, opened her mouth as if to speak, paused, and shut it again. She closed her eyes and sighed. When she spoke, she looked back up at her and Lilly knew that she meant it when she said: “I love you, Lilly. Be safe.”
Someday, Lilly thought. We’ll get there. I’ll be there for you when we do.
“I love you, too”, she said. With a final look back, she left.
Lorraine Kelly was in a ditch. Her gun was empty and she was surrounded. Behind her was only open field, and she’d be easy pickings there.
“Come out with your hands behind your back!” came the voice of one of the two dozen or so commandos that were training their guns at her. It might have been the same one who had yelled the last two times. They all looked the same anyway.
“Fuck you!” she yelled.
She quickly glanced over the edge of the ditch. They were closing in, leapfrogging from cover to cover. Trash containers, corners, trucks. She was lucky there weren’t any second-floor windows around here. They obviously hadn’t realized she was out of bullets. So she had that going for herself, at least. If only she had any idea how to use that against them, it might even have been useful. You could bluff one person with an empty gun, maybe two—but not half an army.
Which meant one thing: She was going to get captured, or…
She looked at the flash-bang grenade in her hand.
“Fuck.” She sighed and, hands trembling, stuck it in her mouth. For a moment, she could only think how awkward and undignified this was before the enormity of the situation came back to her. It tasted of dirt and metal and sweat. She didn’t even know if this would work, or if she’d just blow off half her jaw and slowly bleed to death in excruciating pain.
She put her finger through the pin.
“Come out with your hands behind your back!”
Her hands trembled.
“Come out now!”
She didn’t want to die.
“You’ve lost! Come out!”
She pulled the grenade from her mouth, and a deep sob escaped her. She couldn’t. She just couldn’t. Not this way. She slumped back into herself and the grenade rolled out of her hand as she took a deep breath.
She grabbed her empty gun. This was easier. She got to her knees and shouldered the stock.
“Come get me!” she yelled and got up, her aching feet pushing her into a run. In only the short moment in took her to take in her surroundings, she counted more than ten commandos. She braced for the gunfire as she stormed towards them across the street, screaming, gun pointed at the black shapes.
No shots came. They all just took cover. Lorraine was still running at them, her gun empty, and the only sound was her footsteps and increasingly pathetic attempt at a warcry.
After a couple more steps, she stopped. She was out in the open now. She looked around. She didn’t know what to do. Her plan had ended ten steps ago with her being shot dead.
“Oh, come on! Do it!”, she yelled.
A burst of shots rang out from her left and she instinctively turned and pulled the trigger of her gun.
Nothing happened, obviously. After a moment, Lorraine noticed that she also failed to have any holes in her. They had baited her.
“She’s out!” someone yelled.
Yeah, no shit.
She didn’t bother running when the commandos swarmed her. She got in a couple of good punches before one of them tazed her and she passed out.