Episode 220: A Wolf in the Fold
- Part 2
by Mr. Hook
"I don't want you to join the landing party," Carl blurted out.
Haley raised an eyebrow but didn't stop brushing her hair. She had been getting ready for bed before Carl had interrupted with his impromptu visit. "I wasn't planning to volunteer my services, Officer Jenkins. I think Major Rico and Admiral Ibanez have Freeman figured all wrong. They think they need to trap him before he escapes. I think Freeman is spoiling for a fight. I'd hold off and let him make the first move if I were them."
"The longer we wait, the more opportunities Freeman has to slip through our fingers. Trust me, if the Bug Wars taught us anything it's that there's something to be said for nipping things in the bud."
"Nipping things in the bud is one thing, risking the lives of the crew on a suicide mission is something else," Haley argued.
"It's a risk all officers take when they send their troops into battle. If you'd ever served in the Mobile Infantry, you'd understand that."
"Come on, Carl, you didn't come up here to give me a civics lecture did you?"
Carl let the matter drop. They had already had this debate countless times.
"What is it?" Haley Roman inquired of the concerned look in Carl's eyes. There's something else. What are you not telling me?
It's nothing, it's just... "There is a mole on board this ship, someone who is giving Freeman advance warning of every move we make. If we don't neutralize this threat soon, our assault on Freeman's hive will be a complete waste of time."
"And does this mole have a name?"
"Yes...but I already told Admiral Ibanez it was you."
"I implanted the suggestion in her mind. Once the seed took root, it flourished on its own."
"And why on earth would you want it to flourish? You know how people are, if they can't share my mind-" if they can't 'know' me the way you do, then how can they know I'm innocent? What sort of game are you playing at? I will not be your pawn in some stupid political intrigue!
"It's too late, you're already a pawn in Freeman's game. Now it's our move. I need everyone on this ship, at least everyone on the command staff, to suspect someone else besides the real mole. I need the mole to report back to Freeman that we all suspect the wrong person. You and I might be able to veil our true suspicions, but the rest of the crew can't. I need Freeman to feel confident and secure. If he gets cautious all of a sudden, he might break contact with the mole, might even have her killed to prevent us from tracing his location."
"You said 'her.' Who do you think this mole person is anyway?"
Carl was getting up to leave. "You already know who the mole is, Haley, you just don't want to face the truth of it."
"Oh, and what makes you think I'm so smart?"
"After you found the 'Rosetta stone' on Charybis, who was the first telepath you relayed that information to?"
Haley's eyes widened with alarm. "You can't be serious!"
"You, of all people, should know when I'm joking, and when I'm being serious."
"But...she would never!...why would she want to?..."
"She probably doesn't even realize she's being used, Haley. We can use that to our advantage...maybe. But we can't sever her connection with Freeman, and we can't let Freeman know we're on to her. So you're the 'it' girl...for now," Carl said in a paltry attempt to lighten the mood. He turned to exit the door but stopped short of actually opening it.
"Oh and...uh...tomorrow morning, try to act...suspicious...or something," Carl added lamely.
Or something!? Like what? Scribble 'I am not a spy' a few hundred times on the wall of my quarters?
"I don't know, try exploring the ship a little in your spare time, peeking into corners you wouldn't normally peek into. Make it look like you're trying to gather information."
Oh, but I am trying to gather information, like; how many ways can Carl Jenkins mess up my life this week?
Nice. See you tomorrow.
In your dreams! Haley tossed a hair brush at Carl's retreating back, but by then the door was closed and Carl had retreated to relative safety on the other side.
Carl sighed and started walking toward the "Skinnie" quarter of the ship. He knew Haley would be mad at him for the next couple of days, maybe even weeks. But important as Haley was to him personally, there was obviously more at stake here than just the health of their relationship. He figured Haley would eventually come to understand that. He hoped.
Lying awake on her billet, M'Rette was surprised to hear the voice enter her mind, but soon welcomed it when she realized who it was.
Carl Jenkins, we meet at last. M'Rette could vaguely sense Carl standing outside the air-lock to her quarters. I would invite you inside, but I'm afraid I'm not dressed for the occasion. She could feel Carl grin at her little joke.
I understand that you have sacrificed much in order to help find me, Carl whispered in her mind, hope I don't disappoint you.
You could never do that, M'Rette assured, If anything, I am sorry to have led Major Rico and his team this far without success.
I'd say you did just fine, and that Rico and his crew need you now more than you ever needed them.
What I NEED is to find the man responsible for killing my father!
And what will you do then, when you do find him?
I don't know. Maybe I'll use harsh language. Maybe I'll just demand an explanation. Why did my papa have to die?
And if you get an honest answer?
Even if I get a dishonest answer, I want to know the answer that Freeman believes is true. I just want to KNOW. Maybe then I can finally get some rest.
How long has it been since you last slept?
I don't know. What day is it?
Carl's mental chuckle was like a soothing balm. Which calendar would you prefer? Earth-time, Tophet-time, Erebus-time, or Charybis-time?
I don't think I've gotten a good night's sleep since I was abducted.
If you let me, I can help you. You have suffered much for my sake. For this I am truly, truly sorry. Let me help you get to sleep now. It's the very least I can do.
Alright. What do you want me to do?
Just try to relax.
The voice inside M'Rette's head became a presence. A wraith, a ghost, but a friendly ghost that promised relief and inner peace.
Carl was bombarded by the unusually high volume of background noise bouncing around inside M'Rette's head. The wailing, the moaning, the screaming. The Dull Ache. The mental anguish M'Rette suffered was almost overwhelming. Carl materialized into a more solid form, separating himself from the chaos.
Carl had brought his Satchel - a little trick that Freeman had taught him. Carl figured it was time to fight fire with fire. But first he needed to shift the paradigm a little, bring some order to the clutter floating around in here. Carl closed his eyes and imagined that all of the background noise that was causing M'Rette's insomnia was somehow being projected at him through a movie screen. He opened his eyes and found himself standing in the uniquely T'Phetti movie theater of M'Rette's mind. It was a horror flick. Scenes of Freeman's cruel experiments on M'Rette and her telepathically gifted T'Phetti companions on Erebus played across the movie screen in gory detail. It was a start, but Carl needed to address specifics.
He shifted the analogy further until the unwatchable horrors of M'Rette's recent memories played out on a large vid screen. Carl pulled a remote control out of his Satchel and flipped though the channels of despair and fear and hopelessness and pain, isolating each emotion in turn. Then he hit the mute button. The background noise dwindled to a discontented murmer. M'Rette's mindscape stabilized somewhat, the confusion of stone amphitheater seats and plush lounge sofas receded into a sandstone floor as a pale yellow horizon leveled off in the distance. A trap door opened up beneath the vid screen and swallowed it whole. Carl could feel M'Rette's fears and misgivings still sending seductive vibrations through the surface of the sandstone floor. The painful memories were apparently out of sight and mind, but the Dull Ache remained.
The Dull Ache appeared as deep red bloody gash in the otherwise pristine polished sandstone. Carl took a spade out of his Satchel and tried scooping soothing sand out of the bag and filling in the gash. No sooner had the hole in the ground been filled, the paradigm shifted without warning and the ground became fleshy and smothered with patches of healthy green T'Phetti epidermis. The Dull Ache was now a large festering wound in the pulsating ground. Carl replaced the spade with a SICON first-aid kit. He poured disinfectant on the wound and placed large swaths of bandages over the top of it. For a brief moment the wound seemed to seal up and heal, but then the paradigm shifted again and the Dull Ache reappeared as an open tear on the hull of a spaceship. Carl tried imposing his own analogies, sewing up a tear in a quilt and patching a flat tire. But the Dull Ache remained.
Carl let the paradigm shift back to its original state of broken sandstone and pulled an old-fashioned stethoscope out of his Satchel. He held the scope against the floor and listened carefully.
Clearly M'Rette had not yet fullly grieved over the death of her father. How could she when so many others were looking to her, relying on her for strength and leadership? No wonder she couldn't sleep.
Carl put the stethoscope away. M'Rette, I can't make the pain go away, but if you concentrate, I can help provide you with a distraction so you can sleep. I need you to focus on my words.
Good. Close your eyes and try to remember a time when you felt safe, a time in your life when you didn't have a care in the world, a time when you were loved.
The mindscape began to shimmer and fall apart around Carl.
Try to focus. Show me the place you are thinking of.
Carl almost lost his footing as he suddenly found himself in a playground of sorts, or at least the T'Phetti equivalent of a playground. Young T'phetti children played on metallic structures Carl didn't recognize. Suddenly the view of the playground lurched toward Carl and then swayed away and then lurched toward him and then swayed away. Carl came to the realization that he was witnessing the playground as M'Rette had experienced it as a child - sitting atop a swing.
Carl quickly materialized a stone's throw away from where a young version of M'Rette sat on a swing as her father, T'Phai, helped propel her swing from behind. That's when the blast wave hit him. Tophet's twin suns bathed him in a startling blast of warmth. In the blink of an eye, Carl was wearing a Power Suit to protect himself from the intense heat. He was a bit embarrassed to have been caught off guard by how tightly intertwined the thought-concepts of "warmth" and "comfort" were in M'Rette's mind-scape. He scolded himself for not anticipating the perspective-shift.
Good girl. Now try thinking specifically of home and try to focus on how warm and comfortable that makes you feel.
A T'Phetti dwelling shimmered into view across from the playground. M'Rette's little brother, T'Phal peeked out from a balcony and waved.
Good. Now try to focus on the bonds connecting you to your family.
Much to Carl's surprise, what appeared to him to be a giant lens or magnifying glass appeared in the sky, focusing the light of Tophet's suns into a concentrated pool of light around the playground. Stunned by how easily M'Rette had complied with his wishes, he soon came to understand that this must be M'rette's psychic "gift," what Intel psych-instructors would have called a "lens."
The pool of light tightened around the playground, just as Carl had hoped it would. He started walking backwards toward the looming darkness of M'Rette's subconscious. Soon he could recede like a shadow into the darkness that threatened to engulf anything that stood outside the intense focus of M'Rette's Lens. Carl wanted to slip quietly into the creeping dark until he blended in with her paradigm completely.
The sentient mind is a story-telling machine. It constantly strives to make order out of chaos, to make sense of its surroundings. In the on-going debate over whether or not the Arachnids could be classified as a "sentient" species, Carl sided with those who concluded correctly that the Bugs not only struggled to create an ordered universe, but the Queen also tried to make sense of the past and made plans for her future - the one leap of intuition and faith that "non-sentient" species didn't seem to be able to perform.
Your brain never stops trying to make sense of things, even while you're asleep. It still tries to piece together the random firings of your synapsis into a cohesive narrative. But dream-logic doesn't necessarily follow coherent rules. There is continuity, but the concepts of causality and time usually become so distended and warped that they're virtually meaningless. So when you wake up you realize how silly and incoherent the dream was, even though everything that happened to you in the dream may have felt perfectly "real" or tangible. But you didn't question the series of events while your were dreaming them, did you? Your unconscious mind just accepted them as part of the dream an let the narrative flow on its own accord.
This is sort of what Carl was attempting to achieve now. He needed M'Rette to accept his presence as a part of her dream-logic. To accept the absurdity of his Power Suit and his Satchel so he could sink beneath the scope of her radar and start exploring without drawing any attention to himself. But if M'Rette actually did fall asleep while Carl was still participating in her "day dream," his surroundings would become increasingly distorted and confused. He couldn't afford to get disoriented or lost. Right now he was participating in what could be more accurately described as a "lucid" dream where M'Rette was still in control of the course of events, her conscious mind still giving things shape and coherence. He had to act quickly.
Carl took a pocket watch out of his Satchel and adjusted the chronometer so that for every second that passed in M'Rette's time-sense, one whole minute passed in his own time-sense. That should give me some additional time to look around. Slowing his time-sense down caused the mindscape to shimmer a bit more (from Carl's perspective) and like a mirage suddenly taking shape in the desert, the location of Freeman's secret hideout was revealed. It looked like a SICON bunker that was stationed just outside the periphery of M'Rette's consciousness. Carl stepped outside of the intensely focused light of M'Rette's nostalgia, allowing him to move freely and effortlessly across the deep black gulf of her subconscious. In no time at all he was standing directly outside the perimeter of Freeman's conspicuous bunker.
It looked like the standard SICON outpost one would have found on Klendathu during the Bug Wars. The surrounding soil even stank of sulphurs and acids common to the Bugs' homeworld. There was a sand-bagged trench with bails of barbed wire strung across the top of the trench walls. Deep behind the trench, a concrete bunker sat atop a small hill with a teetering communications tower off to the side. This was how Freeman was sending and receiving signals directly into M'Rette's mind. Unfortunately, the Lens in her sky was two-way, whatever psychic energies she focused inward could also be projected outward. Carl understood why Freeman had chosen her, she was an ideal psychic conduit. The focal point of her "lensing" ability probably allowed Freeman to pick up on everything she heard and saw while she was conscious. He wouldn't even have to tamper with her mind much, he merely had to set up a well defended listening post. Still, just because Freeman had the frequency tuned in didn't necessarily mean that he could monitor the channel every waking moment. He might not be able to monitor anything at all while she was asleep, pure dream logic would probably read as pure static. But it would probably read like static to me, too. I need to bypass Freeman's defenses soon, or not at all.
The trench around the bunker was dug in a square pattern, fully surrounding the encampment. There was, however, a gate guarded by two CHAS-unit sentries, cybernetic sentinels that shot first and asked questions later. Obviously, Freeman had to be able to come an go as he pleased, dipping into the churning waters of M'Rette's subconscious mind at his own leisure. There was probably a password that would allow him to slip past the guards, but Carl didn't want to risk detection by approaching the gate directly.
So he tried shifting the paradigm instead. He clenched his eyes shut a tried to imagine himself stationed in familiar surroundings. When he opened his eyes, the bunker had become a house on a grassy knoll surrounded by a cast iron fence. The house was Carl's two-story house as best he could remember it from when he was a child. The cast-iron fence was also borrowed from Carl's memories of growing up in a gated community in a suburb of Buenos Aries. The seven-foot-high fence posts were topped with nasty looking spikes and the CHAS units were now large growling Doberman Pincers with razor sharp teeth. Carl wasn't sure if this was an improvement, but at least this way Freeman's traps should be easier to spot, at least in theory. Like the satellite dish on the top of his house, for instance. His parents had never let him watch regular vid broadcasts when he was a kid. If he wanted to watch the latest music vid or play the latest vid games, he always had to sneak over to Johnny Rico's place while his parents were still at work. Carl half expected to see his dad come charging out of the house, demanding that the dish be removed, "That idiot box will rot your brain, son! You need to focus on developing your mind! Get thee to a library!" Where was Johnny's place, anyway? Was it time for Space Rangers to be on? Or was today Saturday?
Whoah! Get a grip, Carl, it's only a stupid analogy. Focus!
Carl took a small palm-vid out of his satchel and fiddled with the antenna until he picked up some snowy pictures of what the satellite dish was currently receiving. It was focused on M'rette's playground fantasy, her father still pushing her in the swing, only the other T'Phetti children seemed to have disappeared and now she shared the swing seat with her brother, T'Phal. So now Freeman knew that Carl was trying to help M'Rette catch up on some sleep. Good.
Carl casually circled the house, paying close attention to the details. The trees in his back yard bristled with thorns and there seemed to be a lot more shrubbery that he remembered. The guard-dogs stayed near the gate (which was pad-locked) and didn't follow Carl around as he surveyed the premises. This was also a good sign demonstrating to Carl that he was not yet perceived as a threat to Freeman's defenses and that his presence here had so far been ignored.
Carl walked up to the fence and carefully placed his hands on the metal bars. No alarms, no booby traps. He was probably griping a wet sand bag in Freeman's paradigm. Who knew? Who cared. Using his hands, he tried pulling himself up toward the top rail of the fence just below the venomous spikes. But no matter how high he climbed, the fence grew higher so that the top rail was always out of reach. Carl let go of the fence and stepped back a ways to catch his breath. Clever piece of work, that. Carl wished he could stay and study the fence awhile to see if he could figure out how Freeman had pulled off that neat little trick. Clearly, the only weak point in the fence was at the gate, which was the most heavily guarded. No one was getting in or out of the compound without Freeman's express permission. Well, we'll just see about that.
Carl toyed with the idea of sprouting angels' wings and flying over the fence, but settled for trying to make himself lighter than air in an effort to simply let the wind pick him up and float over the fence. But when he looked down his feet were firmly affixed to the ground. Hmmm. Interesting. Carl flipped through the channel tuner on his palm vid until he caught part of a warning beacon that repeatedly declared that the surrounding area above Freeman's bunker was a "no-fly-zone." Cute. Well, two can play by those rules.
Carl reached into his satchel and pulled out a pogo stick. He had never used a pogo stick in his life, so his senses weren't hampered by how pogo sticks actually worked, he could use it however he thought it should work. He hopped up and down on the stick, his lack of expertise and experience allowing him to bounce progressively higher without exerting any physical effort in the process. He changed himself into a little boy and ditched the Power Suit, save for the helmet, as if he were playing Rangers n' Critters with Johnny just down the street. To test his disguise he pranced up and down around the fence, even bounced past the dogs a couple of times. This time around they didn't even growl, all they saw was a little boy playing in the street who had every right to be there. Shifting the paradigm had been worth the effort after all. Besides, he wasn't flying, he was just hopping along in the no-fly-zone.
Carl hopped around to the back yard again. He used the pogo stick to jump higher and higher until he was easily clearing the height of the fence. And with a simple little lunge in the right direction, Carl bounced up and over the fence. He was in.
He flipped down the visor on his helmet to see how M'Rette's nostalgia trip was progressing. The visor display showed M'Rette and T'Phal now swinging in separate swings. T'Phai was nowhere to be seen. M'Rette and her brother were arguing over who could swing the highest. Then they started to accuse one another for giving their papa the impression that they didn't need his help anymore, that they were strong enough and old enough to swing by themselves. The blame game was beginning to escalate into a full blown argument. Carl was having none of that.
"M'rette! T'Phal! Bedtime!" called their mother, L'War, from the main door of the dwelling. In hindsight, Carl wasn't sure if T'Phetti parents called to their children that way, or if they imposed "betimes" for that matter. But it had the desired consequence. The playground and T'Phal and the swings faded away as M'Rette squealed in delight, rushing into her mother's warm embrace.
That's my girl. Carl flipped the visor up and took an inventory of his new surroundings. The dogs' attention was still focused outward, away from the house. Carl steered clear of the thorny trees and inspected a nearby shrubbery. He was surprised to find a ground-to-air missile launcher nestled in the center of the neatly trimmed hedge. No-fly-zone, indeed. The analogy for the launchers apparently hadn't shifted with the paradigm because Carl had been unaware of their presence. Now that he knew where they were hidden, he tried shifting the analogy a little further. Every bush on the lot morphed into the form of an ornamental lawn cannon with neatly piled cannon balls next to each one. Just to see what would happen, Carl tried shifting the analogy even further. Now the cannons had become brightly painted ceramic lawn gnomes which were wearing rocket warheads instead of pointed hats. Well now that's just silly. Maybe Freeman was right. Maybe there was no such thing as a "pure" analogy.
Carl turned his attention toward the house. Every door, every window had been completely boarded over. He tentatively brushed his fingers against the smooth vinyl siding and felt the coarse texture of porous concrete instead. Not good. It was frustrating to have come this far only to be denied his prize. Carl almost let out a yelp as the whole paradigm stuttered a few times before regaining its composure. Carl flipped down his visor again to find M'Rette being tucked into bed, her mother singing her a lilting T'Phetti lullaby. She was falling asleep! No, please, not yet. Carl kept that thought to himself as he scrambled to find some entryway, any entryway into the house. He looked for cracks or seams he could ooze into, but the underlying concrete texture was seamless and unyielding.
In M'Rette's fantasy, the light levels dimmed as her eyelids became heavy. Then, for a frozen moment in time, she felt loved. And then she fell asleep. And in that exquisite moment between love and sleep, in that glorious moment of vulnerability where there were no worries, no fears, no barriers, the back door of the house that Freeman built creaked open like a stifled yawn. Carl seized the upon the opportunity and let himself in. Only after the door had creaked shut of its own accord did Carl allow himself the luxury of a smile.
It was time to clean house.
"I think we can rule out M'Rette as a suspect," said Carl as he entered the conference room where Carmen and Rico hovered over the conference table's holo-display, planning the morning mission.
Carmen raised an eyebrow. "I didn't realize she was a suspect."
"As far as I'm concerned, every telepath on this ship is a suspect."
"Which leaves...Haley. I don't think we can..."
"Don't worry about Haley. I think you'll find that she'll sleep in tomorrow. There's no way she's going to make it to the mission briefing."
Carmen's stern expression softened. "I'm sorry you had to do that, Carl, but we have to keep our bases covered."
"Yeah, well, speaking of covered bases, what are we going to do for tomorrow's op? Freeman knows we're in town now."
"Did you ever get a hold of T'Phal?" Rico inquired of Carmen.
"The T'Phetti fleet is in town as well," Carmen noted, "but they still aren't answering our hails. I don't think we can expect any help from them. They're probably still debating amongst themselves whether or not they have enough fire-power to boot us out of the system. But at least they know we're here. We should reach Erebus in approximately eight hours."
"If I used my new 'hive' to attack Freman's forces, I think we still might be able to surprise him," Carl suggested, "None of his Imposter troops came near the hanger bay. I think we can safely assume that he doesn't know the full extent of our newly acquired Arachnid forces. If you gave me command of all your Drop Ships and tactical bombers, I could launch a combined Arachnid-SICON bombing squad against Freeman's compound."
"If we can use your Bugs as cannon fodder, so much the better," said Carmen, "Rico, how long will it take your team to prep for a ground assault? I'm thinking if Carl launches with guns blazing we might be able to distract Freeman long enough to sneak in through the back door."
"The back door is a maze of caverns," said Rico, pointing to the relevant points on the holo-display, "I don't like it. It seems too eerily similar to the covert op we tried to pull on Klendathu. Carl, are you sure we can kill Freeman's 'hive' if we off Freeman himself?"
"If my own experience trying to control an Arachnid hive is anything to go on, I'd say no one in Freeman's clutches is acting entirely of their own accord. I can't speak for Freeman's human recruits, but killing Freeman would definitely send whatever Arachnid mutants he currently controls into complete disarray, maybe paralyze 'em out-right. Those Super Impostors that boarded us were definitely getting direct guidance from Freeman. It would never have occurred to a Bug naturally to pick up a Morita rifle."
"I still don't like it," Rico opined, "The Klendathu op failed because there was too much lead time between when the Bugs first detected us and when we finally located the Queen. By the time we got there she had already planned an escape route and even had transport waiting by the time we got to her. We'd have to sort out that maze of tunnels fast, not give Freeman enough lead time to react."
"Well, being on-board a SICON flag ship does have it's perks," said Carmen, "We do have a full compliment of new Stealth Suits. We also have some prototype Drop Suits which have been modified in similar ways to avoid radar detection of any kind. I could plant you right in Freeman's back yard and he wouldn't even know you were there until you tapped him on the shoulder. As long as Carl can keep him distracted, you shouldn't have to worry about psyonic interference."
"But locating Freeman once we land is still a problem. I was sort of counting on Haley or M'Rette to help track him down once we got there."
"We'll," said Carmen, "Haley is out of the loop, for now. If we made some additional modifications to her Power Suit, I don't see any reason why you couldn't take M'Rette."
"I don't know," said Rico, "She looked pretty out of it the last time I saw her. She's been through a lot lately. Carl, what do you think? Is M'Rette up for this sort of thing?"
Carl suppressed a smile.
"Yeah," he said, "Yeah, I think M'Rette will do just fine..."
Next Episode: 221: Silent Drop