Ava watched Colonel Kurtz leave the room. Something about him seemed different from the man she’d known before the mission to Coraxa. She couldn’t place what exactly, but it seemed unlikely the security-conscious officer she’d known would be content with having her in a couple of restraints on a bed in the middle of FDG headquarters. After all, she was carrying unknown nanotech inside her, and that could do anything.
Ava expected him to have flipped his shit when he learned about her condition but, instead, he seemed calm. But not just calm, almost… pleased.
That’s not possible, Ava dismissed with a shake of her head. Right?
She couldn’t think of a reason to justify his behavior. More likely, he was acting normal and it was her perception that was off.
She squirmed around on her bed to get comfortable, but there was no way she was going to feel at ease while strapped down. Moreover, there were too many uncertain thoughts running through her head.
I trust Luke to figure out what’s going on with me, but maybe Kurtz is right. Maybe this is something for me to embrace rather than run from. Ava hated the idea of such a fundamental life change being thrust upon her with no warning, but it wasn’t like she’d planned on having telepathic abilities, either. She was shocked, and then she adapted.
Except, with special skills came the likelihood she would be used—just like the people on her home of Coraxa wanted her to become a Reader, and just like the FDG used her now for their covert investigations.
She was a willing participant in the latter, but how many new ‘special assignments’ would she get if she were a telepath and a super-warrior? She might get sent in on her own.
But her team was her family. She wanted to stay with them and to work together. It’s what made her work fulfilling. With new abilities, that dynamic would certainly change.
Her thoughts were interrupted by a knock on the plexiglass window looking out into the hall. She looked over to see Doctor Dwyer holding up a handwritten sign.
Why the fuck would he be writing something out on a dry erase board rather than typing it? In true doctor fashion, his handwriting was almost indecipherable. She squinted at the script to make it out: ‘Kurtz isn’t who he seems.’
Ava’s heart dropped. She shook her head with confusion.
Doctor Dwyer cleared the message on the board and wrote another: ‘Play along.’
Before she could question him, the doctor departed.
What the hell was that about? Ava released a long sigh and nestled into her pillow. If the colonel was indeed not who he seemed to be, then things would be getting very uncomfortable, fast. He was a senior officer, and not a lot of people in the FDG would have the authority to detain him on suspicions alone. The doctor better have some sort of evidence to support the odd behavior of handwritten notes.
Ava groaned. And the day had gotten off to such a good start.
* * *
Widmore turned around to see Luke standing on the other side of the plexiglass. “I heard you talking about Ava’s team. I have a proposition.”
“And what is that?” Widmore asked, stepping away from Ava’s bed toward the window.
“I don’t like where this is going,” Ava interjected from the bed. “Each of you have way too much blackmail on me. Not sure I want those social circles to blend.”
“If you want out of those restraints faster, then you might want to hold that thought,” Luke replied with a wan smile. “Major, I’d like to take Ava’s team back to the NTech lab on Coraxa to extract some equipment.”
“That’s not ours to take,” Widmore protested.
“It’s specialized and can’t be purchased from any old supplier,” Luke continued. “It’d have to be custom commissioned, and that would take weeks. Without it, we’re looking at three days for each test we run here, and we’re not going to get what we need the first time. Those tests can be performed in half an hour with the equipment I want to retrieve.”
Widmore considered the proposition. “Come to think of it, our official investigation requires a deeper dive into NTech’s research practices. I believe we need to send in a team to procure additional evidence from the facility for examination and testing here at FDG headquarters.”
Luke smiled. “I’d like to volunteer myself for that assignment.”
“Very well. Approved,” Widmore said. “And yes, Ava’s team would make for excellent support on the mission since they are also familiar with the facility.”
“Thank you, sir. I’ll leave as soon as possible.”
“I don’t like the idea of you going back there,” objected Ava.
“It’ll be quick. Just grab the equipment and go,” Luke told her.
“That’s the plan, right. But what about NTech? You think they’ll really just let us condemn the lab and not come for their equipment? It’s only been a few days since our raid. I imagine they’ll try to reclaim it right at the time you’d be showing up.”
“Which is why he’ll have a team of elite Force warriors accompanying him,” Widmore countered. “Like I said, this will all be above board as part of the FDG’s official investigation. They won’t have grounds to bar entry from the facility.”
Ava frowned. “It’s not getting in I’m worried about, sir. It’s getting back out.”
“I said I’d do anything to help you, Ava, and this is what I have to do,” Luke told her.
Widmore looked Ava in the eyes. “If we want to run detailed analyses to find out what’s going on inside you—or Kurtz—then this is what we need.”
She sighed. “You’re right. This isn’t just about me.”
“Agreed?” Widmore asked aloud.
“All right,” Ava conceded. “I appreciate everyone being so willing to jump in to help me.”
“We always take care of our own.” Widmore stepped toward the door. “I’ll keep you apprised.”
Ava tugged on her restraints. “You know where to find me.”
* * *
Ava was just beginning to doze off when a knock sounded on the window.
She cracked one eye open. “Colonel Kurtz?”
“Good, you’re awake. It’s time we chat.” He kept his gaze fixed on her as he passed through the containment tunnel into the room.
When the door hissed open, Ava tilted her head questioningly. “Sir, I thought you’d be in bed by now. It’s late.”
“Just wanted to check on you.” Kurtz stopped at the foot of her bed. “Since it’s just the two of us, no need for all the formality.”
Maybe Doctor Dwyer is on to something. This doesn’t sound like the colonel at all. “I appreciate you stopping by.” Not really, but Ava figured that’s what people in her circumstances should say.
“When I sent you on that mission, I didn’t expect events to unfold this way.”
“Well, a lot of things didn’t go according to plan.”
“I have to say, though, when it doesn’t work out like you envision, that’s when you learn a lot about yourself as a leader. I’ve learned more about myself in the last few days than I ever knew I could.”
Ava grunted. “Aside from what happened to me, things didn’t go that badly. We still took down the lab and got the woman behind it all.”
Kurtz frowned. “Yes, though that was quite unfortunate she met such an untimely end. I would not have expected Luke to jump in like that.”
“Caught me by surprise, too. Not that it changed things. Andrea still gave me that shot.”
“Speaking of which,” Kurtz walked slowly along the side of the bed, “have you experienced any other transformations?”
“Nope, just relaxing here.”
“Perhaps you should try? There’s no way to master new skills without practice.”
“Yeah, I don’t think that’s really advisable in this case.”
Kurtz stopped midway along the bed near her knees. “Have you ever talked to your team about what it’s like being a shifter?”
“Not really, no. Why?”
“Hmm, that’s surprising.”
Ava shrugged as much as she could in the restraints. “They haven’t asked me about being a telepath, either. We are the way we are.”
“Well, speaking from my own experience,” the colonel continued, “there’s a moment when you first transform where it’s so new and scary that you’re not sure you ever want to do it again. Except, that act of transformation is a fundamental part of your identity. You need to push through the fear to come into your full self.”
“Except I didn’t choose to be a Were—let alone a Hochste. This isn’t some grand cultural heritage for me to embrace. What happened to me is the product of illegal nanocyte experimentation, end of story.”
“Many advancements are an accident, like my transition to being a Pricoloci after a routine Pod Doc procedure on board the War Axe. It took the vampire Valerie to subdue me, but I learned how to control it. History shows that those who seize opportunity hold the power.”
Ava studied Kurtz. She took a slow breath, trying to seem like she was considering his words. “Maybe it is a good thing, but it’s going to take time for me to adjust to the idea. I hope you’ll be patient with me.”
Kurtz looked like he was going to say something else, his face contorting around his eyes and lips. After five seconds, he nodded. “Of course. Sleep well.” He stiffly exited the room.
What the hell is going on with him? Ava sunk into her pillows. And what does he want from me?
* * *
Luke swore under his breath. The last thing they needed were trespassers giving them a hard time while the FDG team tried to leave the lab with a cart full of irreplaceable equipment. “Who’s here?”
Nick reviewed the details on his wrist read-out. “Looks like signatures for two individuals. Vibrations registering on the sensor I left by the front door.”
“Not an army, at least,” Samantha muttered.
“No, but that doesn’t mean they can’t hurt us,” Edwin replied, readying his handgun. “Let’s move the cart closer to the entry and find a secure location to leave it. We can scope out who it is out there.”
Samantha nodded, and then drew her handgun, set to the sonic stun setting. She led the way down the hall with Nick while Edwin pushed the hovercart.
When they neared the door to the lobby, they turned off the lights on their armor.
“Let me get the cart,” Luke suggested. “I haven’t practiced much with guns.”
Edwin nodded and stepped aside for Luke to take over. The Were drew his weapon and shimmied around the cart to join his teammates.
“Any guesses on who they might be?” Samantha whispered.
“Could be anyone from NTech officials to curious locals,” Nick replied. “NTech is more likely, but I really hope it’s the latter.”
They ran their hands along the wall for guidance in the near-blackness. Half a dozen meters from the exit, they directed Luke to park the cart.
Samantha, Nick, and Edwin crept forward down the hall. They gestured for Luke to stay back, but he was curious to see who’d come to the lab. He followed them forward with his handgun at the ready, hoping he wouldn’t have to use it.
Edwin passed by the others and pressed his back against the side wall. “All right, I can make out two figures,” he whispered to the team. “Doesn’t look like they have on armor—or, at least not powered armor.”
“We can take on two, if we have to,” Samantha whispered.
“They’re just standing in the middle of the lobby talking,” Edwin relayed. “I can’t hear them from here.”
“Can you listen in using the sensor?” Luke asked.
Samantha shook her head. “We could in our powered armor, but we don’t have the right comm setup here.”
“They’re still talking,” Edwin reported.
Nick looked back over his shoulder to Luke and Samantha. “Do we wait it out or announce ourselves?”
“This place is under an FDG-instituted lockdown, so we have every right to be here. I say we step forward but leave the cart for now,” Samantha replied.
“Sounds good to me.” Nick stood up. “Wait here in the corridor until we give the all clear, Luke.”
He nodded, pressing his back against the side wall. He inched forward with the Weres until he had a view of the lobby, then stopped to observe while they prepared to head out.
“Hello!” Nick called as he turned on his suit’s light. His weapon was drawn, but he had it pointed down. “What can we do for you?”
The two figures in the lobby came to attention.
“Who are you?” the first asked in a mid-range voice that could be male or female. Luke couldn’t make out any distinguishing physical features in the dim light shining through the plastic sheeting.
“We’re representatives from the FDG,” Nick said. “Per the notice posted outside, this site is under active FDG investigation.”
“We need to ask you to leave,” the second figure stated in a lower male voice.
“Please identify yourselves,” Edwin requested as he stepped forward to join Nick.
“You have no authority here,” the first person replied.
“Actually, we do.” Nick tensed, raising his weapon the slightest measure. “State your name and business.”
The second person scoffed. “Get out of here and leave us alone.”
“Can’t do that.” Edwin raised his weapon.
Samantha took the opportunity to step forward. “Hey, guys, what seems to be the trouble?”
“These trespassers don’t want to play nice,” Nick told her.
“Trespassers?” The second person laughed. “We can’t trespass on our own property.”
“You’re NTech?” Samantha prompted.
“Probably easiest for you to think of us that way, yes.” The first person said. “And we’re here to assess this fucking mess you made of our investment.”