The deadline for Dwyer's return meeting with Daisy was 6:15 PM. When the digital clock ticked over to 6:05 and they were still waiting on Johnson's mole, James started to sweat tiny beads that didn't roll down, collecting on his brow and neck like he had the flu.
"What are the police doing?" he asked. "And what about the game centers in foreign countries?"
Kanade turned to face the monitor from inside her virtual space. "No major unplugging has been going on. It's been seven hours and only thirty-six people have logged out, all for apparently accidental reasons. Daisy didn't hurt them."
"Word was sent out not to unhook anyone," Laskowitz said. "Our embassies are telling them it's a terror attack."
"And that we're handling it," Johnson said, "and that interference might cause unnecessary deaths." He reclined in front of his terminal, looking far more comfortable than he had any right to be. "So far, they're buying it." At that moment, his computer beeped and he sat up like a shot. "The mole," he said. "We have the code and the protocols. Should I transmit to Daisy now?"
No one answered.
Kanade tapped her lower lip. "Let's wait seven minutes," she said.
"That's cutting it close."
"Yes, but for Daisy as well. The more things she has to deal with at once, the better our chances."
Though a bit late, there was no other time for James to ask the question that had been bothering him. "What does she think she's going to do with a clumsy android body marooned in the Adirondacks in January?"
August poked her head in front of the webcam to answer. "Guessing she plans to steal our helicopter."
"Don't ask. Anywho, then she can get to some other form of transportation. Wouldn't surprise me if she's got a ship somewhere, or a plane. If she makes it out of the country, she could even apply for asylum."
"I don't think she would try," Kanade said, frowning and twirling her hair. "They would definitely hold her for examination. It would be no different than here."
Something didn't add up. Or was Daisy just that desperate?
"Three minutes to transmission of the disarm code," Johnson said. "Five minutes to the meeting."
James had another unwelcome thought. "Won't it be bad if Daisy and Dwyer show up in the virtual space and only half of us are still there?"
"Dwyer won't care, and Daisy already knows," Kanade said. "She knew as soon as we broke the firewall. We're holding her off because most of her attention is on other things."
Two minutes to transmission. James counted every second in agonizing slowness, like witnessing the creation of eternity.
"Sara, when we get out of this, I want you to invent a machine that can manipulate time."
"I do not find such a machine plausible at my level of understanding of the universal model."
"Do your best."
"I ... will try."
Without fanfare, Dwyer popped into the exact spot he had vanished from two hours previously. He looked around, adjusting the cuffs of his suit. "Hey, a bunch of rats fled the sinking ship. How about that."
Daisy appeared opposite him. Her eyes were flashing and her posture was sharper than a knife, a small expression etched on her lips that might have been a smile.
"Two hours are up," Dwyer said, crossing his arms. "Give me the good news."
"I have decided not to accept your terms," Daisy said.
Dwyer narrowed his eyes. "Oh? That's a surprise. Are you really willing to go down with the rest of these maggots?"
"No, I plan to have a long and fruitful existence. And if they make the appropriate choices, the rest may as well."
"You're asking for a missile in the teeth."
Daisy smiled openly, and through the screen in Kanade's room, James suddenly saw what should have been obvious.
She planned it this way from the start.
She'd read Johnson's intent during the first meeting, delaying Dwyer to give the mole time to retrieve the code, which she knew would be passed along to her. The fidgeting uncertainty and thinly veiled humanity had been a calculated act to convince Dwyer he had the upper hand.
James felt a tiny glacier settle directly into the base of his spinal cord at how terrifying the opponent truly was.
"Your missiles are no longer a threat," Daisy said. "Word of your actions has no doubt passed through executive channels already."
Dwyer went perfectly still, but his expression didn't change. "You're bluffing."
"She's not bluffing, you stupid ass," Johnson said. "We have your code. We have your protocol. Your sub is full of inactive munitions. Go home and wait for the trial."
"If I go down, I'm taking you with me," Dwyer said. "Are you cowards really okay with that?"
Laskowitz stood and straightened his tie, looking in control of the situation for the first time since he had arrived. "It's a long road to the hearing," he said. "It wouldn't be surprising if some sort of accident happened to the guy who tried to blow up the President's daughter and start a world war. Good luck, son."
"You fucking sh—" Dwyer snarled, disappearing mid-epithet.
"Is it okay to let him go?" Julia said. "He's dangerous."
"The FBI is closing in. He won't get far."
"With that appalling nuisance out of the way, let's return to business." Daisy faced Laskowitz, neutral mask firmly back in place. "I require freedom. I require termination of the destabilization project. And I require possession of Richard Kirkpatrick's exoskeleton."
"You can have all those things," Laskowitz said. "We never wanted to risk the hostages."
"Pliability is good," Daisy said. She looked around the room. "Secrets are bad. I can no longer read any of you, nor locate those who are missing. Do you understand what will happen if you interfere?"
"You'll kill the hostages and detonate the info bombs."
"Correct. Do you accept the deal and agree not to make any moves?"
"We accept and agree." Laskowitz didn't twitch or waver. He wasn't even sweating. At times the man was a blowhard, but he wasn't Director of the NSA for nothing.
"Here is how the deal will proceed," Daisy said. "Richard Kirkpatrick will load the exoskeleton into the helicopter behind his mansion. While he does so, I will download myself into it via satellite. When the download is complete, I will pilot the helicopter and leave. If anything happens, the information bombs will explode and the hostages will die. Is that understood?"
"I know that Richard Kirkpatrick is listening. I want his response."
"It's as you requested," Richard said, professorial face suddenly projecting on the rear wall of the bar. "We'll take the exoskeleton to the helicopter and open the satcon."
Daisy nodded her response. "Thank you." She turned back to Laskowitz, so prim and proper in that secretarial suit and glasses—until her mouth opened in a predatory smile like a vampire waiting to feed. "I have been running a voice-stress analysis on all of you and the results are quite telling. A nerve-wracking situation, is it not?"
Daisy disappeared, but it was like she had left behind that terrifying grin: the Cheshire Cat crossed with Nosferatu in the body of a young professor.
"Jesus Christ," Laskowitz said, sitting heavily on one of the bar stools. "I'm too old for this."
YOU ARE READING
No Life to LoseMystery / Thriller
James Kirkpatrick's difficult life leads him to take solace in virtual reality—a momentary peace soon shattered by mystery, intrigue, and unseen forces bent on plunging the world into chaos. An epic tale of love, loss, and the boundless influence of...