Chapter 15:

A Secret Base

Challengers


I had to leave Rio behind in Kimura to repair the communications equipment. But before I did, I pulled Doc aside.

“Benji, something’s not right here. Don’t you feel it?”

He gave me a look full of wide-eyed innocence. “Really? What tipped you off? Miss Nakamura’s cyborg bodyguard from the 20th century? The secret lab?”

“Don’t get snarky, I’m being serious. I want to get a closer look at that lab. Can you do me a favor and keep an eye on Rio while I’m gone? ”

“Of course.” Doc folded his beefy arms and gave me a long, calculating look. It was a little like being stared at by a granite Buddha. Benji was a big believer in weightlifting. “You’re not planning to do something stupid, are you?”

“That’s why I’m going alone. If the wheels start to come off, I don’t want Rio involved. But don’t worry.” I gave him a hearty slap on the shoulder. “I’m the soul of discretion, you know that.”

He snorted. “Says the bull in the china shop. Don’t break anything you can’t pay for, okay?”

“I’ll be careful,” I promised. “You and Rio can take my truck and join me at the shelter when she gets finished.” I handed him the key. “Make sure you wash it and fill the gas tank first, though.”

He looked at me over the rim of his glasses as he took the tile from my hand. “Of course, General Peterson. You know I still technically outrank you, right?”

“Of course, of course. Oh, and don’t scratch the paint, it’s brand new.”

***

I rode to the YTF facility in the passenger seat of Kira Nakamura’s luxury SUV, next to Lev -- the Dreadnought -- who drove. Nakamura sat in the back seat and tried in vain to ignore me.

“So, what kind of research does Yamanaki Future Technologies do on Kimura Jima?” I asked.

Nakamura’s jaw muscles clenched. It seemed like everything I said managed to irritate or annoy her. The fact that I didn’t care only added to her aggravation.

“We are researching new sources of renewable energy,” she finally replied. Corporate guidelines probably dictated a minimum level of courtesy with representatives from the military -- such as myself -- but she was definitely not rising above the minimum level.

She made eye contact with me in the vanity mirror on the back of the vehicle’s sun visor. “There’s really not much to see at the base, Lieutenant Peterson,” she said. “The high-energy labs look much like those you’d find elsewhere. But what goes on in the labs, in our researcher’s minds and computers? That’s priceless.”

Her eyes narrowed slightly. “It’s also highly proprietary and top secret. I don’t care what kind of security clearance you or your crew may have, our work here belongs to YFT! Period. If you’re caught anywhere outside of the designated shelter area, you’ll be arrested and detained by our security. Are we clear on that?”

“Very clear. But I have another question --”

“Oh, look, we’re almost here.” She didn’t bother trying to hide the relief in her voice. “Please hold your questions until we’re inside the shelter, Lieutenant.”

The drive from Kimura to the YFT lab entrance, except for the presence of a killer cyborg and a disagreeable company executive, had been pleasant and bump-free thanks to the paved roadway that paralleled the shoreline. Thick groves of coconut palms and flowering tropical vegetation clustered along the edges of the road. Had the beaches been made of regular sand rather than black volcanic residue, the image of a tropical island paradise would have been perfect.

But the surf was building as the typhoon drew closer. Breaker after breaker rolled in and crashed into the shore, sending spray flying far enough to wet the windshield of our vehicle.

We rolled up to an unmanned checkpoint in front of a sealed tunnel entrance in a cliff wall. The beach below ended abruptly in boulders piled up against the cliff. I craned my head but couldn’t see the big cave facing the sea. “Where’s the cave?” I asked.

Nakamura saw where I was looking. “The sea entrance is underwater right now, due to the high tide. If we were here when the tide went out, you could see it.”

Lev showed a security badge to the weather-proof panel built into the side of the guard station. The candy-striped steel pillars that had barred our way retracted into the ground, and we accelerated forward. Steel doors covering the tunnel entrance lifted and we proceeded into the darkness.

Just before we entered, I got a text message from Rio that popped up in front of me.

:Repairs on the communication equipment not possible. Call me when you can speak privately. URGENT.

***

The tunnel only extended a few meters before opening up into the biggest indoor area I’d ever seen in my life. Banks of overhead lighting pierced most of the gloom, but it still felt darker than midnight in that cavern.

The electric bill must have been huge. I wondered if the “renewable energy” that YFT was supposed to be researching here was supplying the power to the lights.

The base consisted of a huge set of docks that started along the cavern wall where our SUV had entered, and curved around in an enormous half-circle. Inside this arc a couple of extendable walkways stretched out into an empty bay which could have floated a battleship. Several buildings you’d expect to see in a high-tech office complex were arrayed behind the docks, and cranes and gantries were strewn liberally around the semi-circle. Heavy cables and concrete pillars rose up to the curved ceiling far above us, which had been reinforced with a spider web of steel supports.

If I hadn’t been told this was a research lab, I would have sworn I was looking at a shipyard.

After Lev parked the SUV in a long, open shed, I climbed out of the vehicle and followed Nakamura down a well-lit sidewalk to the largest building. The Dreadnought followed behind me in ominous silence.

We stepped up to some heavy glass doors. This time, it was Nakamura who showed her pass to yet another scanner before we could proceed through.

The base cafeteria was on the bottom floor. A series of vending machines lined one entire wall, crushing my hopes of having world-class chefs taking our orders. Most of the tables and chairs had been pulled off to the sides, replaced with cots and flimsy partitions.

The city council huddled together near the entrance of the room as Nakamura addressed them. “Everyone, please listen. For your safety, you will remain inside the boundaries of this cafeteria for the duration of your stay. There is unfinished construction all across this base, and possibly even unexploded ordnance.

“Once the typhoon has passed, we can return to the council building -- if it still remains -- and start emergency operations and recovery planning for the island. I will wait out the storm in my suite on the top floor of this building. You may reach me there at any time. Thank you for your understanding.”

Nakamura waved me toward a stack of cots. “Please make yourself at home, Lieutenant.” Turning on her heel, she marched off with her bodyguard in tow. Even the tap-tap-tap of her shoes sounded angry. Such a gracious host, I thought. I’d find more hospitality at Dracula’s castle.

I checked my new lodging arrangements. The cafeteria overlooked the empty bay, but when I tried the doors leading to the outdoor patio area I discovered they were locked. All the other exits from the cafeteria were secured as well.

Thank goodness the restrooms were still open. I went into one of the men’s stalls and, locking the door, activated my headset and contacted Rio. Her troubled face appeared in front of me.

“Rio, what’s wrong? There was a problem of some kind?”

“Lieutenant Peterson! Yes, I discovered something while trying to repair the equipment.” She glanced to one side, as if checking to see if anyone was listening. “Someone deliberately destroyed one of the signal processing unit chips before we arrived at the community center. We can’t contact the mainland from here and we’ve even lost communications with the Mistral.”

“You think it was sabotage?”

She answered without hesitation. “Yes. It was made to look like the chip had overheated, but there’s nothing in its sub-housing that would cause that kind of heat buildup without destroying everything around it.”

“I see.” I thought for a second. “Okay, do this, then. Have Wada take his own vehicle to the emergency shelter. I’ve got something I need to do here, then I want you and Doc to return to the Mistral.

“Huh? But, don’t you think I could help you more at your location?” Her tone of voice matched the hurt expression on her face.

“Don’t worry, you can guide me past base security from where you’re at.” And you’ll also be out of danger in case I screw up, I didn’t add. “Starting right now.”

“You’re going to try and breach their security systems? But you could get --” She bit her lip. In a small voice she said “Please be careful, okay Jim?”

“People have been trying to kill me for over six years,” I said. “And at least a couple of them were allies. But I’m still here.”

I reached for the channel selector on my headset and gave her a smile brimming with confidence. “And besides, I’ll have you to guide me! I’m starting the operation now. Switching over to tactical voice channel.”

I could see her blush just before she cut her video transmission.

***

I stood on the toilet seat. Reaching overhead, I removed the paneling from the hanging ceiling and hoisted myself up onto the top of the wall behind the toilets.

Unless the building construction is analyzed by someone who knows what they’re doing, it’s possible to find security loopholes almost everywhere. I remember once I’d actually been able to slip into an armory just because the builder had forgotten to extend the reinforced wall past the false ceiling.

Now, though, I just needed to get into one of the research offices. Then, with the help of my crack electronic warfare expert, I would hack into the network and lay bare all the secrets of Yamanaki Future Technologies. Easy. 

Especially since I'd had Rio locate and download blueprints to a similar building design from the same architects who'd built other YFT facilities. Standardization of designs cut costs, and I was hoping to exploit some of that. 

Such as the use of a plumbing conduit so big it had a ladder built into the side. Just like the one I was standing under. Maybe this is  too easy, I thought to myself as I looked up the conduit.

“Mistral Sierra Four, are you there?” I whispered.

Roger, Challenger Alpha-Six.” Rio’s voice came over my headset. “Climb to the third floor. You’ll need to open an inspection panel in the women’s restroom.”

Copy.” I went hand over hand up the ladder, my infrared headlamp illuminating the rungs, until a large, squarish panel appeared next to my shoulder. I braced myself between the pipes and the wall of the conduit and looked closely. There was a locked latch holding the panel shut. It was a simple matter to press up on the spring lock mechanism with the tip of my pocket knife, then turn the latch. The inspection panel popped open and I squeezed through underneath a row of sinks. “Okay, Sierra-Four, I’m in the women’s restroom. Please don’t tell anyone.”

Doc’s crusty voice came on the channel. “Alpha-Six, this is Halliday.” I grinned when I heard him using his old call sign. “Sorry, your secret’s already out. Resign yourself to a lifetime of shame.”

I’d tried to keep Doc out of the loop so he could claim deniability. Rio was just following orders, but what I was doing was technically illegal. Maybe I could plead “probable cause” at a court-martial.

But Benji had found out what I was doing anyway. And instead of avoiding the operation, he’d insisted on being part of it.

“Copy, Halliday. I’ve been doing shameful things for years anyway.” Quickly, I checked under the stall doors, even if there was only one woman who might be using them. I rolled out from under the sinks and crept to the restroom entrance, cracked the door open, and listened.

I heard only the hushed sound of air-conditioning. “Alpha-Six, moving.”

Creeping down the darkened hall on the thickly padded floor, I found the office with a door marked “Chief Researcher.” Perfect! And the short run from the restroom to the office meant there was only a single security cam to fool.

The emitter Rio had given me affected camera sensors directly, including IR and ultraviolet, so that I would appear only as a shimmery, transparent outline on any video screens. I was hoping that I could fool anyone looking at a security camera monitor as well as any AI scanning the camera images.

There were definite advantages to having military-grade burglar tools. I pulled the special key tile out of my shirt pocket, then held it against the door lock. “Sierra-Four, I’m carding the lock.”

Copy Alpha-Six. Wait one.”

Nervously, I looked back down the corridor. Half the wall was glass and presented me with a gorgeous view of the artificially-lit bay. While I waited for Rio to crack the lock, I scanned the docks for movement. There was no one out there, although a few small wavelets crept in from the submerged cave opening.

A metallic buzz signaled the opening of the lock. “Alpha-Six, you’re clear to proceed.”

“Nice work, Sierra-Four! Six, moving.” I opened the door and padded across the carpet to the computer desk adjacent to a work table, then laid the tile on the desk.

Security seems to be really lax, Alpha-Six,” Rio said. “With all their personnel evacuated, now seems to be the perfect time --”

Her transmission suddenly broke off. I keyed my microphone. “Sierra-Four, come in.”

Silence.

I tried to keep my voice from rising. “Challenger Alpha-Six to Mistral Sierra-Four, come in please.”

Still no reply.

Was Doc online? “Challenger Alpha-Six to Halliday, please acknowledge.”

A cold, hard lump formed in the pit of my stomach as each call went unanswered.

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