Author Topic: Coming Home  (Read 89 times)

Nick the Priest

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Coming Home
« on: (12:17:05/08-22-17) »
Mac felt his weight shift in the Americar as Dutch came off the expressway and shot through the light. Their flashing cherries and siren alerted surrounding vehicles to their presence and Firewatch’s security protocols made GridGuide’s their unspoken teammate. He glanced at his partner and took in the tightness around his eyes and the controlled breathing as he accelerated into the straightaway the traffic management system provided. He brought his phone app to forefront of his HUD and dialed home again. Still no answer. His palms were sweating inside his tac gloves and his hooves felt like electric lead. Where the fuck was she?

“Mac, try her again?” voiced Dutch, in game delay.

“I did. Same thing, no answer.” How could his stomach feel empty and tumultuous at the same time? “Vid feed still off too” he said as he glanced at one of the many other windows in his field of vision. He refreshed the feed for probably the fifth time hoping this would be the one that restored contact.

“Fuck.” Muttered Dutch, and then something else longer and lower. Mac almost thoughtlessly adjusted the settings for his ears, filtering out the engine and boosting Dutch’s volume to catch the end of his subvocal sending “…contact. Not sure what’s happening, but be ready to respond.” He was talking with Conrad, the team Captain. Mac tried hard not to think about what they may have to “respond” to. 

He glanced at a third window in his HUD and saw his own profile fill the screen, a sound wave running under, recording what was being said, along with a biomonitor showing that Disco was in good health. He looked closer. His heart rate was slightly elevated. Mac looked back in the seat at his other partner and saw his own concern mirrored in the dobermans all black face, but for different reasons. The dog didn’t know the cameras had gone static or the lines were dead. He could detect Mac’s stress though, and was ready to act because of it.

…………………………………….

It had been a normal day at the house, his unit was out of rotation, and Sheila had called in sick to spend the day with the family. Outside the norm, as work was a major priority for both of them, but she was correct when she said they hadn’t had much time together recently. Secretly Mac was elated. His two favorite women in the world all to himself for the whole day. Wife and daughter: his whole world.

The call came in about an hour before lunch.

Sheila was in the kitchen reading out options from the soy processor. An ork, she was taller and stronger built than other women, which was exactly what won Mac over every time he looked at her. Light brown skin, and long brown hair, currently tied up in some kind of bun/pony tail thing he knew there was a name for but would never remember, she was resplendent in yoga pants and one of his stolen t-shirts. Mac sat at the table with Piper on his lap, he in shorts and a tank top, dog tags hanging out over his shirt.  He was a satyr and his greek heritage showed again in his swarthy looks and hairy chest.The kid took after her mom, which Mac considered excellent luck on her part.

Each menu option she read received a “Whatever you want babe,” which in turn elicited a noncommittal grunt or sigh, accompanied by the banging of Piper’s plastic toy dinosaur on the table. “Ok then,” she said, “I’m choosing…..lasagna.” As if on cue his phone window jumped into full view, immediately alerting him that work was calling. Only Sheila and work were pre-set for maximum visualization. She looked over, startled, as they each shared view access to the others HUD’s.

“Mac, sorry to call”. Captain Zell’s face filled the view, appearing distracted and a bit irritated. A pretty norm looking human, his age showed more in the gray at his temples than in lines on his face. Mac could tell by looking at him that he was juggling multiple other feeds and windows while he was talking. “Call just came in. Bravo Six just went high alert status and is wheels up in 30. They were on detail at site seven, and no one else is available to cover the watch. I’ve initiated Off-Duty Pay protocols as of you answering this call, so get dressed. Do you need me to tap one of the daycare programs to send someone over?”

“No sir, won't be necessary. Sheila’s off sick so Piper won’t be left alone.” Mac could see his wife shaking her head no, actually stomping her foot for emphasis. He shrugged at her helplessly and Conrad spoke up again.

“Ugh, sorry for the suck Mac, tell Sheila not to blame you. I’ll take the heat on this one.” And with that the call disconnected, and Mac dismissed the window.

“Mac, no.” Sheila started in. “We’re off together today. I took off for you. You can’t go in. You’ve gotta stay here with us.” She genuinely looked distressed as he walked over and handed Piper off. The little tyke immediately started to echo her mother. “Pappa, don’t go!” and she began to sniffle, and swatted the dinosaur at him. 

Ugh, Mac thought, kick a man while he’s down. “Guys, you know I don’t want to go. This isn’t a choice. This is the job. And Off-Duty Pay babe! A full day of double time will add some much needed Nuyen to the vacation fund.”

“I don’t care about vacation Mac. I need you here with me today.” She sounded frustrated, and maybe even tearful. Mac mentally kicked himself in the shins. This was his fault really. He hadn’t taken the time off recently that he should have. He’d been letting work take up all his spare hours and his marriage was taking a beating because of it. They hadn’t been fighting or anything, they didn’t really do that. But their free time hadn’t had as much
 as usual, and Mac knew that lack bugged both of them. They hadn’t needed the money. She was bringing in enough on her paycheck that they were both living comfortably, but Mac was feeling a little macho-dumb. Being supported by his wife rubbed at him, and his gung-ho demeanor demanded he try and balance the scales.

She followed him out of the room and kept up the pressure while he was getting kitted out. He tried fending her off with kisses, promises, and practical talk, but to no avail. The tension started to grow with both of them and by the time he strapped Disco into his load out and headed out the door he was snapping at her and she was bordering on controlled tearful breakdown. He commanded his car to open and Disco took shotgun in one leap while Mac slid in and gave the GPS site commands. Garage door opened, auto drive kicked in,  and the car was off. He was so irritated that she pulled that drek. She knew that when work called for either of them, they had to go. That was part and parcel with corp life, and the benefits Ares laid on their table made it more than worth it. As his car wove through traffic he tagged into the team DNI chat. “Sup omaes. En route. ETA of...11 minutes.”

“6 minutes here you slow fucker” called back Dutch. “Why do I always beat you man, it’s not like you got boots to tie?” The channel broke into laughter as the other four team members enjoyed the joke, and Mac’s face split into a tusky grin.

“Cap, you gonna let me suffer this harassment? Don’t we have like an HR department or something? Pretty sure this is profiling.”

The Captains face showed the barest of grins. “Can’t be profiling if it’s true. Then again I’m sure Dutch’s hand wasn’t nearly as hard to walk away from as your hot wife Mac.” The channel erupted in “Oooohs” and Dutch kissed his fist in reply.

“Don’t be jealous Cap. I got the extra sensitive skin on this arm upgrade. Worth every penny. Damn thing nearly exudes lotion. I’m saving like twenty or thirty nuyen a month now.”

The chatter kept up until the whole team had arrived at site seven, a shipping hub tied into a community of labs Ares maintained on the outskirts of Baltimore proper. They met in the employee parking area, outside of the security gate on the south side of the property. Some of the team was still getting dressed as Mac and Disco exited the car. Lee was still strapping her armored vest over her bulky frame, her tight braid currently trapped under a strap. An ork, she was actually just a little bit beefier than Mac, but technically they were the same “meta” so it made sense. Mac reached over and pulled loose the braid as he passed, and she grunted by way of thanks.  Dutch, the other human on the team,  was shoving the last bite of a sandwich in his mouth and chatting with the team's tech head, and elf named Sims. He was the newest member on the squad, and looked as white bread as an elf could look, but his record was solid and thus far he’d spun himself into the mix seamlessly.

Lee reached down and gave Disco a head rub. “How’th my favorite teammate?” she growled. Her tusks protruded a bit more than normal, and it gave her an obvious lisp. She didn’t seem to notice, or care, and neither did the rest of the unit. Not that her obviously cybered out arms made her the butt of many jokes. That and her chromosomes meant that even though she didn’t care, the Captain would tag any jokes too colorful for HR follow up. No one needed that headache.

Mac’s eyes, as well as the rest of the teams, seemed to darken as their UV filters kicked in. Cyber eyes were mandatory for any Talentless team members. As they currently had no magical support, that left them with all the cyber eyes and none of the astral sight. That lack bugged the drek out of the Captain as no Talent on the team meant they weren’t going to get any of the best action. Mac mind though. Magic was creepy shit.

They walked through security, common guards manning the gate, and hopped in one of the on site rovers. Driving through the warehouses and outbuildings of the site they followed the map in the Captain's head to the priority target. Pulling up they saw nothing but an unassuming warehouse, but everyone on the team knew that could mean anything at all was inside. They parked against the front wall and slid out of the rover. As they approached the security door Captain Zell spoke up, obviously on a comm channel they weren’t tied into. “Bravo Four on site, full unit accounted for. Code request initiated.” A moment passed and then “Affirmative control. I’ll pass it on.” Zell shook his head. “Control thanked us for our speedy response and passed on condolences for initiating Off Duty Override.”

“How thoughtful” said Sims with an eye roll for flourish. “See if you can guilt them into a catered lunch.”

Lee pulled the half of her power bar out of her mouth and waggled it at him. “That’th why I alway’th sthay sthocked up on sthnacks. You never know when you’ll get time for a bite.”The team ignored the soy bits that sprayed out with the admonition but when she turned away Mac noticed Sim’s make a shudder and his face turned a little sour. Mac frowned on the inside, instantly siding with Lee out of time served, and knowing what difficulty came from tusks. Mac was fortunate that as a satyr his were less pronounced, and also that his parents had good enough jobs to pay for cosmetic mods, thereby making it easier to speak flawlessly. That reminded Mac, he needed to call Mom, it had been a couple of days. He mentally added that to his to do list app, below “Sexy Time” and above “Clean out garage”.

“Ok people. Standard orders. Observe and protect. Sims and I will take control room. Mac, you and the pup will be on perimeter roam. Lee- the roof, and Dutch will take front desk. Dutch I’m setting up a timer for you to swap at intervals with Lee and Mac. Any questions?” The rest of the team looked around confirming they were all on the same page and the Captain said “Alright then, go to work.”

And that was that, they split up, took their assigned roles, and fell into familiar patterns of people who were trained to protect and work together. After the first hour the team's schedule alarm told Dutch to swap with Lee, and after the second Lee went back to the roof and Dutch swapped with Mac. The entire time chatter was kept to a minimum. Work was no place for play, and Firewatch members understood that completely. Even friendly banter as almost nonexistent.

While three of the five played hourly switcharoo, Captain Lee and Sims manned the Nest, the central hub of the building to which all security was organized, monitored, and directed. The captain plugged into the switchboard and his view was filled with an array of AR monitors, sound feeds, and drone data. He was more than just a rigger, as his talent in the field was equally strong, and his critical thinking under fire was well known and respected. He was, though, the best pilot in the squad and supposedly there was little he couldn’t handle.

Sims was the “keyboard jockey”, although the term no longer fit the actual job description. Like the Captain he could handle a gun, and knew which way to duck and cover in combat maneuvers, but AR was his strong suit. He could, and had, disabled enemy comms and weapons almost before the fight had started, and the team recognized the worth in his focus.

Site seven had little action to draw their attention though. A few comings and goings of personnel, most fitting the “scientist” description all too common in these kind of protected sites. At the three and a half hours in a drone flew into an upper delivery bay of the warehouse, but never came back out. The whole team saw it, and it’s clearance codes were approved by Cap.

Mac had plenty of time to think, and the processor he had installed right after Christmas made it so his attention wasn’t lacking on the job. His irritation at Sheila had faded after his fourth perimeter sweep, and now he was missing home harder than normal. Disco was at heel on the left so he was able to put more focus on the right side. The extra set of eyes, and Disco’s other skills, made him one of Captain Zell’s favorites. He loved having a team member who didn’t eat into his salary budget. Mac kept his home feed window open but minimized in his periphery and every so often checked in with the cam feed from home. Sheila had puttered around the house, spent a little them with Piper, and now it looked like both of them were napping in the living room. They looked super cozy on the overstuffed couch they had ordered from the family Shopazullu account, which was just as comfy in real time as it had been on the VR tour.

On his second desk rotation Mac decided he’d give Sheila a quick call and check in. He messaged Cap to let him know, and then engaged her comm code. It didn’t even ring once, it just immediately went to an automated message “This number is not in service, please try again.” Mac looked at the app in confusion. He tapped her icon again, same message. He looked at her sleeping on the couch, still there, no movement. He pulled up their comm account packages and made sure nothing had happened with the autopay set-up; no issue there either. He looked at their accounts. “What the hell?” he said.

“You in that much trouble?” said Cap over the team channel. Mac didn’t even realize he had spoken aloud.

“Um, no, sorry Cap. I’m having a comm issue here. Sheila’s line isn’t ringing and when I checked the account it shows it was deactivated.”

“Deactivated?” Sims said. “You sure about that?”

“That’s what it says. Account invalid, Comm Code Deactivated. That’s ridiculous, we wouldn’t deactivate her comm.”

“Mac, I’m hopping into your comm. I’m pinging now for admin access. Hit YES” said Sims. Mac could see Sims audio feed shudder slightly. He was speaking privately to the Captain. He reached down and gave Disco a neck rub, out of habit as much for reassurance, and watched as various windows popped up in his view. Sim’s persona popped up in his display, a bright yellow skinned Rocket Man looking thing with fins sticking out from arms, legs, and back. He insisted it looked badass, but Mac thought it looked like some kids show character from back in the 50’s. Sim’s persona self grabbed Macs home cam feed and enlarged the window. “Have you had this running the entire time?”

“Yeah, I usually do. I keep it minimized though so it doesn’t get in the way.” Mac felt a bit defensive, but Sims didn’t seem to be pushing a protocol issue.

“There’s something wrong here. The codes off.”

“What do you mean off?” said Dutch. Mac grimaced. Evidently his problem was now distracting the whole team. Damnit.

“Let me see here. Mac, you got any idea how long she’s been napping?”

“Uh, since just after my first desk rotation. She and Piper both. Why?”

Sims came back “Hold on, let me see.” His persona was moving his arms and hands around in the air, but Mac either couldn’t see or follow what was happening. A few seconds later he stopped and pointed at empty space. “There, that’s it. Mac your cam feed is looping. Somehow your code got scrambled…..wait. Wait a sec. Fuck. Mac, I’m resetting your comm. You’ll be down for a sec and off channels.”

Macs whole feed immediately went down. He could still see Disco’s AR identifier over his head, and the floating arrows marking exits, and cordoning off hallway access, but the rest of the matrix and his teams comm channels were out. A thirty count later it all popped back up and windows started auto opening, per his standard settings. The sound feed kicked in.

“...you saying?” That was Dutch’s voice and he sounded edgy.

“I’m sayin” said Sims “that Mac had malicious code laid into his cam feed. It was put there intentionally, and as far as I can tell Sheila’s comm is disconnected.”

Mac’s cam feed from home popped into view. It was static, snowstorm white with a message scrolling across the bottom: NO INCOMING SIGNAL. “Sim’s, I’m back in. What the frag is happening here man. What does that mean?”

“Can’t you  just reactivate her comm’th?” said Lee.

“No I can’t. That’s not the way this shit works. There’s no signal to reset. Hell, there’s not even a number to ping in the system. It’s like that number never existed. Mac, was, um, your wifes comm installed like yours was?”

“Yeah, we had the same model installed matching our clearances. By the book. What the hell is happening here Sims?”

“Shit!” said Sims. “Cap?” and with that both Sims and the Captain left the channel.


Nick the Priest

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Re: Coming Home
« Reply #1 on: (12:17:37/08-22-17) »
Mac stood up, and felt Disco rise and heel. He felt like a spring, coiled to tight, ready to explode into motion. “What the fuck is this?” exclaimed Dutch. Mac could hear the anger in his voice. Dutch was a longtime friend. They both went through Firewatch training together and had actually been lucky enough to serve in the same unit since. He and his girlfriend came over once every few weeks for dinner, and he and Mac hit the range together every Saturday. His anger was real as Mac’s family was like his own.

A few seconds passed and both of them re-joined the channel. “Mac, you are hereby relieved of duty. Get your ass back home now. Dutch, same status, stay with Mac. I’m contacting Control, and having them send uni’s here as backup, and a Knight patrol car to your address.” Mac was already bolting for the door, and the rover parked just beyond. He saw Dutch running all out from around the corner of the building. Mac hopped behind the wheel, feeling Disco take shotgun and hit the accelerator. He felt cold panic setting in, fear covered by action. He didn’t even feel the irritation that was standard with driving a car with pedals. His hoof stomped down awkwardly on the pad, sliding off a bit and he jerked the car away from the building. He didn’t even slow down for Dutch, who just grabbed onto the roll bar and swung in. Mac could hear him panting a bit, but didn’t look back. He just willed the rover to go faster than it could and stared straight ahead.

They hit the parking lot, growling through the gate house opening, guards stepping out in confusion. Last one in, first one out, Dutch was heading for his car as Mac engaged the parking brake. “My car!” Dutch called back over his shoulder, and Mac silently complied.

Dutch’s car wasn’t even out of the parking lot before Sims started updating the team. “Power grid still shows connection to the house, and accessing street cams shows the house whole and healthy. No car in the driveway though, does that sound right?”

Mac enlarged the street view Sims had sent to his overlay, looking for anything out of place. “Uh, yeah, it would be in the garage. We both park in the garage.”

“Mac, you and Sheila both on the corp lease program?”

“Yeah Cap, she just got her upgrade about 6, maybe 8 months back.”

“Sims, all the cars in the program have trackers on them. I’m tagging you for security clearance, check that out.”

It was a full minute before the response came back. “Yeah Cap, cars showing at that address. Also, my inquiry just came back. No Docwagon service calls in the whole neighborhood in the last few hours.”

No one responded.

Seconds ate miles and the car’s siren sounded like a screaming child to Mac’s ears. His jaw was tight,and he could feel his fist clenching and releasing, micro-tensions broadcasting his fear. Something was wrong. His gut was battling his brain, and his brain was losing. The windshield was a forgotten background to his AR display, yellow lines and sidewalk eaten by the cars passing, laid over with multiple cam feeds. At the very center was the static from his home cam, off to the right was the street cam showing the driveway- still empty. A third window erupted on the left side of his HUD showing a drone’s eye view of the city below. Sims explained that he was piggybacking feed from a KE advance drone that was in the area. He couldn’t control it but it was showing at least one other view of the neighborhood. Mac called Sheila again. And again.

Dutch hit the entrance to the Ares owned community, squealing tires, at 70 mph. The few other  vehicles in the neighborhood were pulling over maintaining the emergency lane they had on the highway as a large rotating AR light popped up on each street corner letting pedestrians know of impending emergency services. Mac’s arm was nudged forward. He glanced back and Disco was now leaning into the front seat, recognizing either by scent or sight the place that was almost home. Mac leaned his shoulder into the dog's neck, feeling his own tightness reflected back.  The car stopped in front of the driveway, abruptly blocking the anything that may come out of the garage from easy street access. Both doors auto released and Mac rolled out and to one knee, gun drawn, eyes scanning. He knew Dutch was pulling his Ares Alpha from the back seat and posting up over the roof of the car. Disco hopped out and broke training, starting for the front door. “Post!” Mac barked and the dog stopped. “Post!” Mac said again, more intently, and Disco moved back behind Mac’s right hip, legs slightly bent to stay under Mac’s firing stance. The house looked normal, everything seemed in place.

“Cap, we’re on site and about to breach” said Dutch.

“I see you” said the Captain, and Mac took note of his and Dutch’s positions on the street cam. “Moving” he said, dog and handler both quick walking toward the front gun up and eyes out. He stopped  before he hit the stoop as the Captain said “Perimeter first Mac.” He growled and pulled his eyes away from the door, feeling the gut punch of procedure over instinct. Dutch’s SmartLink feed popped up in his view and he willed it off to upper right. He was sure his was doing the same on his partner's feed, courtesy of Sim’s no doubt. He saw himself and Disco take the edge of the house wide, clearing out to in, and then moving into the back yard. The little half picket Sheila had insisted on was no burden for either he or the dog to clear. The back yard, he could already see, was empty of life. A swingset his mom had ordered for Piper, and a few dog toys spotted the grass.

Mac switched his vision specs to thermal scanning the shrubs on the back fence line for anything out of place. The back door was closed, but the auto-tint was set at what looked to be full. They cleared the third corner and he could see Dutch standing steady, scanning the front of the house. His SmartLink feed immediately centered on Mac, and then back to the windows. Through that lens Mac could see that indeed all the windows were dark. “We don’t set our windows that low. Sim’s, if the house node is off then why are the windows still dark?”

“Good question man….uh….shit!”

“What?” said the Captain.

“Mac, you’re node’s not down. It’s just been put in a sort of stealth mode, and it looks like it has a new authorization code set to it.”

Mac growled again and cut the last corner tight, trotting faster for the front door. He could hear Dutch call a warning, knowing he was going in sloppy as he hit the door hoof first. It swung open fast with no resistance, banging loudly against the wall behind. He stumbled forward, having expected for the door to be closed and latched. His eyes took in the room and he0 stopped, mouth open, heart pounding. Over everything he could see in the house was a light dusting of some whitish powder. It was like some horrible christmas nightmare. “Sheila!” he shouted.  “Piper! Honey!” He could hear Dutch running up to the door, seeing the feed dancing as the barrel cleared the front entry. By that time Mac was into the kitchen, working his way through the mud room, the dining room, and hitting the stairs three at a time. The furniture looked mostly in place, except for that one toppled chair. The blanket and pillow from the couch were on the floor, stretched long as if they fallen off a moving body. One of the frames on the stairway wall was knocked crooked, he and his family at an awkward angle on a beach in Maine. He heard himself calling, but couldn’t hear the panic in his voice. “Piper! Sheila!” Over and over drowning out the voice of Dutch trying to catch up and bring him back to focus; drowning out the chatter on comms of Captain Zell and Sims both asking for details.

As Mac and Disco cleared the last door they burst into Piper’s room. Toys and pillows scattered the floor, crayon lines on the wall from an unwatched moment last week, an Omai-dog’s robot bark counting time to it’s automated backflips as it’s motion sensor engaged. The static filled cam feed flashed out, and then reset. “You’re back on, Mac” said Sim’s. And like that, the emptiness of his home slammed into him. Every cam feed showed only he, Disco qand Dutch in the house. He moved over to the closet and ripped the doors open, whipping the hanging child's clothes aside. “Sheila! Piper!”  He turned and flipped Piper's bed over eyes frantically searching. As Dutch filled the doorway Mac charged him and let his shoulder drive his partner to the wall as he rushed past. He went to his own bedroom again and searched the closets. The bed was still made from where Sheila fixed it up each morning, a light dusting of that fucking powder over their pillows. He grabbed the mattress and flipped it the same way as before.

“Sheila! SHEILA! SHEILA! FUCK!” This time Dutch made way as Mac came roaring past. Mac knew he was saying something but he and the rest of the comm channel were incoherent. He leaped down the stairs in a single bound, feeling the creak of the banister as he whipped himself back toward the garage door. He flung it open and ran in. The space was filled with assorted totes, tool benches, and Sheila’s car. He noticed something on top of the car, and more of the powder covering everything in the room. He finally recognized it as the source of the mess, guessing he had missed them in the other rooms of the house. As quickly as he considered if it was toxic, the thought left his mind. He looked frantically through the car windows and wrenched the door open when he saw they were dusted from the inside as well as out. The whole car was filled with a thicker layer of the substance. Mac turned and yanked the garage door up and over his head. He took a few staggering steps out into the driveway, feeling himself grow dizzy, not realizing he was hyperventilating and spinning in wavering circles. He felt rather than heard himself release a gut wrenching cry. Holding his hands to his head, pistol still clenched tight against his horn, he saw Dutch coming out of the garage after him. He was holding out his hand, his assault rifle pushed back out of the way, concern blazing across his face.

“Mac, brother, breathe man, breathe. You gotta get yourself together. Knights are on the way. We’re gonna find em Mac. I promise. We’re gonna find em.” Mac found himself turned away from Duch, from his home, from his dog, palms on the hood of Dutch’s Americar. He could feel the metal under his palms. He focused on the heat, focused on the solid, the strength in the hood. He breathed in and out, ragged breaths trying to find steady, and let the heat and steel bring him back to focus. He realized Dutch and the rest of the team were chattering over comms, and a sense of reassurance touched on him as he heard the Captain taking control, miles away, but a steady head and an expert under pressure. In the distance he could hear sirens approaching, a familiar whine unique to Knight Errant patrol vehicles.

He felt his leg buckle a bit and looked down to Disco butting him in the knee. Disco’s concerned whine brought Mac to a knee and he slid his hands back over the dog's ears. “They took them. They took our girls Disco. Disco, they took our girls.” He felt his eyes cloud over as he locked gazes with the dog. A sharp nose butted his face and a few quick licks swiped his cheeks, letting out another concerned whine. Mac hugged his dog tightly to him feeling Disco’s neck press hot against his own. “They took our girls” he whispered. His eyes raked back over the yard, seeing the door kicked in, the garden gnome Sheila bought when they moved in under the front window, and something shiny and plastic. Mac engaged the magnification mod in his eyes and his vision zoomed up on the object. Piper’s dinosaur.

He swallowed the sick fighting to come up and ground his teeth, feeling his lips tighten against his tusks. Someone took his girls. His family. Someone took them, and he was going to burn the world down to get them back.

…………………………………….

Mac finished scraping the last of his Meatloaf flavored Nuke-It soypack out of the plastic tray. He chewed it wordlessly, and washed it down with a swallow of beer. He stared at the table, filled with his helmet and vest, his gun belt laid over the back of Sheila’s chair. That used to drive her nuts. She was always getting on him about leaving guns on the table, never mind that the biometric lock made it impossible for them to be fired by anyone other than him. He pushed his chair back and stood up to throw away the remains of his dinner. Disco lifted his head from the arm of the couch where he had been watching Mac since they got home. He could see the corner of Piper’s blanket sticking out from under the dog's chin. Disco hadn’t slept without that blanket since the girls disappeared. Seven weeks now. The longest and most exhausting time in Mac’s life, and there was no end in sight.

The police had found nothing, and a CSI team associated with the Firewatch division had been called in to go over the house inch by inch. They were calling it an involuntary extraction, which was corp speak for intellectual kidnapping. They found Sheila’s personal terminal at the house wiped clean, and those powder packs exploded in every room. He had been told the the powder was some cleaning chemical called C Squared, and was used by terrorist and criminal elements to eliminate DNA evidence. They said it made tracking victims magically next to impossible. Whoever had taken his family had been thorough in that regard. There had been no sign. No evidence. It was like they turned into thin air and left only that damnable C Squared behind. It had taken over a week just to get that cleaned out of the house entirely. Conrad had actually called in a favor and gotten a special cleanup crew out to the house. They usually worked homicides, so had no issue with the mess he had.

The interviews had been endless, and the whole team had gone through the mill. As had the neighbors, Sheila’s co workers, and various sitters that had been used from the corp services. There must have been hundreds of hours of recordings those investigators had looked through, all for naught. Mac had been put on administrative leave for the first three weeks. His mother and father showed up the third week, and after listening to his mother cry and pray for her grand child for five days he asked his parents to leave and requested to return to work. Bizarrely he had almost attained a sense of normalcy in those intervening weeks. He woke up, took Disco for a run, ate, went to work, came home, ate a Nuke-It, had a beer or two, took Disco for a walk, and waited for sleep to take him. He found himself unable to watch the trid, or surf the matrix, or anything else that would have once provided distraction. He was feeling like he’d hit rock bottom.

Mac started to leave the kitchen, and then turned back and grabbed his gun belt from her chair. He pushed it up to the table and straightened it up before telling the lights to shut off and heading to bed. Every time he touched something he thought of as hers the guilt hammered home. He should have been here, should have protected his family. For the first time in his career he resented the job, the corp, and the life. This was his fault, and he knew it even if the whole world argued differently.

He hung the belt on the back of the bedroom door, pulled the gun out and set it on the bedside table.  He thought about taking another shower, but gave up on the idea immediately. “You don’t think I smell bad do ya buddy?” he said while giving Disco and ear rub. “No you don’t. You think I smell just fine.” He sat down on the edge of the bed and rubbed his hand against his head. Just around the base of his horns he pushed and rubbed a bit harder trying to make his headache go away. He seemed to have had one now for weeks. He went back to the bathroom for a goodnight piss, and a couple of Pain Aid’s. The bottle was empty, and as he threw it away the reminder to buy more popped up in his display. He punched the YES button and it was added to his delivery order for tomorrow. “Perfect” he muttered. “Fucking perfect.”

He stood in the doorway and looked at his bedroom. Disco laid on the bed curled up on the blanket he had brought from the couch. Mac stared at Sheila’s bedside table, a small bowl with assorted rings and jewelry, a lamp she had swore was a great deal, and a digital photo of them on their wedding day. “Sheila” Mac said, and smiled a little as he walked over and opened her bedside drawer. There was more of the same, along with a bottle of lube, the pistol he got her for Valentine's day, and her own bottle of Pain Aid. “Thanks baby” he said picking  up the bottle and sitting down on her side of the bed. He popped the top, to a couple more than the max dosage, and chased it with his last swig of beer. He toasted her face in the pic with his empty can. “Here’s to you baby, taking care of me when I sure as hell couldn’t take care of you.” He stared for too long until his eyes went back to the pistols handle. He had purchased her an Ares Predator of her own, and had it customized to his exact specs. Custom grips, smart link adaptor, biometric lock, and a safe fire system so she could never accidently shoot anyone in the house (not that she would, Sheila was a solid shot, as Mac had found out on one of their first dates to the range). He’d even had a personality chip installed of a sexy woman who would tell you how hot you looked every time you fired. He’d thought it was brilliant, and Sheila had confirmed his choice of voices as “just the right kind of sexy.”

He reached out and picked up the gun. His palms connected with the Smartlink sensors in the grip, and asked for the security code for anyone other than Sheila to use it. He tapped in the code on the pop up keypad- Piper’s birthday. The Smartlink fully engaged, targets sights popped up in his image display, as well as an ammo count, ammo type, and the wireless component kicked in to confirm that there was no wind in the bedroom to interfere with his shot. He aimed at the window, and realized that the persona chip wasn’t kicking on. He triggered the flashing light that engaged the program and almost dropped the gun in shock. It was Sheila’s voice.

“Mac, this was the only place I could think to leave a message that wouldn’t get found. Oh Mac, I’m so sorry. I wanted to tell you but couldn’t. I had it all planned out for us to go as a family. Mac, baby, Mac, I love you. We’re safe, know that. This was all planned down to the wire, and then when you got called it was too late to change. Mac, we’re with Evo. A team of people I don’t know are coming, I mean, came. By the time you see this they already came. They took Piper and me, safely. They are covering their tracks well. This is what they do Mac. They’re good. You’ll never be able to find them on your own, but you don’t have to. There’s a man who hangs out at the coffee shop right on Baltimore harbors east side. Fante’s cafe.  I only ever knew him as Candy, but he always wore one of those ridiculous neck scarves you hate. Find him Mac. He’s expecting you, and can put you on the path to find us. Baby, I miss you. I know when you find this I’ll have gone crazy missing you, and I’m sure you us. Come find me Mac. Come find your family.”

And the message was over. He stared at that blinking light, mouth agape, for he didn’t know how long. He played it again. And again. And again. He realized his grip on the pistol was so tight his hand was hurting. He loosened his hold and played it a fourth time.

“Disco,” he looked over and locked eyes with Piper’s sworn protector, “Disco buddy, they took our girls, but now we’re going to get them back.” Disco huffed and licked the corner of the blanket protectively. Mac reached out and rubbed his ears, and then he hit play one more time.