She paused for a moment to gather her senses. Perfect, just like she remembered. It was dark, and the portal - most amusingly - caused each dew frosted corn stalk to shine rainbows.
She turned and just... willed it away, with a lazy wave of her hand, just like he had. It closed much more easily than it opened. Then - fingers clenched around the crystal - she ran like a bat out of hell.
Ignoring the full-body sprinkler system created by skipping rows, she ran in a straight line towards the bright lights of a town. Thanks to Laherty’s indiscretion, she knew exactly how proficient S.O.G. was at locating, identifying and confronting possible threats.
The town was small - more of a truck stop, and the field’s nearest edge was a dirt road, but... she stopped running for a second. She had heard something else.
Over her own hasty breaths, the roar of trucks going by at high speeds was barely audible. A major highway. It was what she needed... but she wouldn’t get to it fast enough. Any more time outside, visible by ground and satellite, was too much, if they were at the top of their game tonight. The truck stop would have to do.
She removed one of the daggers from her belt, and carefully concealed it in one white leather boot. Then the crystal, and the flash drive in the other. She tied them up again, finger-combed the base of her braids for a second and went inside to find a willing victim.
She left the rest of the daggers at her side. Hopefully they’d serve as a deterrent. Morbid curiosity aside, she genuinely didn’t want to have to use them on any mortals.
She quickly located the main hangout, in the largest bar - a billiards room. All eyes fixed on her the second her fingers left the door.
“Hey um... would anybody here happen to be going towards... ah...” She turned and gestured behind her. “...what is that highway again?”
“SR70.” said three locals at the same time.
“Yes, that one...” She took a wild guess. “East. SR70 East is what I need.”
She saw no signs of suspicion. Then again, there wasn’t much reaction from them at all. The overworked, unkempt and wary men simply stared at her some more. And not at her face, either. She glanced down at the perfectly tailored, fancy leather armor, dropped her hands and smiled sheepishly. “Dress rehearsals. I’m in a play at school. The Vikings at Helgeland,” she offered, with just a hint of pride and excitement.
The way they looked to each other then confirmed her theory that they didn’t frequent plays.
“I’ll be headin’ that way here in a few,” offered a bearded, weighty gentleman.
This group of gawking transients should be gone by the time they show, she figured, ...if they even do.
She thanked the gruff old man profusely before, during and after the trip, requesting he drop her off in front of someone’s home, in a random residential area in another town, in what turned out to be Kansas. Far enough from the Bifröst site to be well out of S.O.G.’s default search range, but large enough, she hoped, to prevent her from having to steal.
She sweet-talked and hitchhiked her way to the library which was, in fact, there - and closed in fifteen minutes. She smiled at her apparent luck as she walked in. Of course, there were several computers free. She sat down and pulled out the flash drive. But there was a conspicuous lack of USB ports... Hm. She looked down the rows of towers. Apparently the small town dust collectors had had some bad experiences with people and their flash drives.
She sighed. She remembered seeing a good plan B about a block away. A cafe. She snickered to herself. Hooray for ‘Midgard’, where everyone is addicted to computers and caffeine.
Without hesitation she made her way there, careful not to be too visible from the road. Now this - she thought, heaving open the thick glass door - might present a challenge. There were only a few people there that late with laptops. She studied them discreetly as she walked by. But they were all so engrossed in their ventures; nobody even bothered to look up at the dusty little viking-era kid. Quietly, she sat down at a table in the corner, not a cent to her name, and waited.
Finally, some guy got up and made for the menu board. He left his laptop behind on the table for just a minute. And she swiftly, casually swiped it on her way out.
With quick, calm steps, and a blank expression suggestive of no wrongdoing on her part, she kept moving until she was completely behind the building. She knelt down on a square of pavement there with her back to the wall, pulled out the flash drive, and applied it in one smooth motion. She closed her eyes for a second while the guy’s overloaded operating system brought up the contents. Anything. She was prepared to do anything to ensure that this world stayed safe... from whatever version of her might be unleashed.
The first thing she noticed was that there were no image files. She frowned. She remembered going through just about every kind of scan and test there was that fateful day. And thinking back on the doctor’s reactions, she’d always assumed there was some sort of photo evidence - of her old heart, at least. There was only one file of interest: a report, because the author was the late man himself. She looked up and around frequently, dedicating as much attention as possible to any and all sounds as she read. She couldn’t be too careful. If she got caught she went into the system, and S.O.G. would find her easily from there.
Scanning the document, a phrase caught her attention. ‘genetic anomalies’. Plural? “Blood tests reveal multiple genetic anomalies which are active, but have no phenotype.”
Active, but - Oh. He couldn’t see it. In his search for the cause of the symptoms, he’d stumbled across something that he thought should be showing in her. No wonder he’d kept her so long.
Bunch of numbers, more numbers, then “Foreign technology was used to replace the entire left ventricle of the heart, with near-perfect function and a power source not visible to the naked eye. Suspect involvement with a high-level private organization; outside resources.”
‘Notes’: “DNA contains markers consistent with those of the LN mutation. International authorities will be contacted as per protocol. The patient will not be questioned, for fear of stress-induced malfunction of the aforementioned technology. The evidence remains inconclusive as to whether she is aware.”
Protocol. What! Standing, known procedures for... for whatever they thought she was?
She was about to give up. Her fingers skimmed the black plastic surface of the flash drive until she noticed, at the top of a report that she’d scanned past, another number, out-of-place. It was at the top of several pages actually, always about where her name should be. ‘LN4372’.
LN. No... That can't be what it is. S.O.G. and their stupid acronyms, she seethed. She tried to think of some other, more likely meaning for it, reading through all those parts, looking for clues. But that one possibility distracted her again and again. LN. Lusus Naturae.
Ben had said it once or twice - let it slip. The name officially given to these freaks of nature... the ones S.O.G. could catch, at least. Extremely dangerous. Just about every ‘covert operation’ from which Laherty came back with serious injuries was because of one of them - and the insane, ultra combative suspects were never heard from again.
She refused to believe that that was what Geisli was talking about.
She could ponder it all later. She removed the drive, tucked it away, and thoroughly deleted everything from the laptop. For now, she’d have to accept failure. She needed a place to hide out until she thought of something else - or until Loptr found her. She had a couple of ideas. Might have to wait for the first morning bus to get there.
With neither the need nor the desire to be packing around the poor guy’s laptop, and not the heart to destroy it, she sneaked back inside when she could, returning it to the same spot on the table with relative ease. Its owner was busy yelling at a manager. She couldn’t help but grin a little, at the thought of what he might do once someone noticed it was right there where he’d left it. She’d just stepped out into the parking lot when she noticed a row of four identical, evenly spaced sets of headlights barreling down the street towards them, right off the highway.
The dark, shiny SUVs cut deftly through and around local traffic, using any and all means possible to speed towards her location. She barely had time to duck inside a fenced-in dumpster area and close the gate before she heard them all screech to a stop.
Several armed operatives filed into the unsuspecting coffee shop. She watched the scene through the hinges, the well-lit interior still perfectly visible thanks to the darkness outside.
One of them identified, then seized the laptop. The others questioned the customers, under varying amounts of duress. They took the laptop’s owner into custody and spread out around the building, checking every crevasse for affiliates. Namely, her.
How did they manage to find, hack and trace a random, private laptop that just now read that information, from a flash drive! Freaking S.O.G.
Hiding was, perhaps, not the best idea. They’d definitely be checking where she was. And she was trapped. The gate faced the building, and the building was swarming with SOGgys.
Her best chance was to sneak out. She waited for a break in the armored, skulking figures, and slowly pushed open the gate. Then, using every ounce of skill she’d ever learned, she moved out, low and silent.
She just needed to get to the road. Few people would refuse to help a scared little kid in the dark. Suddenly long, skinny fingers wrapped around her mouth and arm. Instantly she drew a blade, but the voice was kind and gentle... and familiar.
“Rory. It’s me. Please don’t stab me with that. I’m pretty sure if you do, then I won’t be able to help you anymore.”
It had a hint of laughter to it, despite the seriousness of the situation. Ben!
He let her go and she turned around, but before she could say anything he put a finger to his lips and whispered harshly, “No time to explain. I know what’s going on. I won’t take you back to them...” He looked over his shoulder at an agent who’d frozen up, one hand on his helmet by the comms... “And now we have to run!” He grabbed her wrist and pulled her along with him as they made a break for the nearest vehicle. Ben leapt in, and before she’d even closed the door they were screeching out of the parking lot.
With one hand on the wheel, he began to take things off the back seat, off the dashboard and himself, throwing them all out the window. She never knew he was that... skilled. She felt only a very mild fear of impending doom.
He glanced her way with an almost excited expression, stating simply “Hold on.” Then, without slowing down, he slid into a small section of dirt between east and west-bound lanes, cut across traffic and took an exit on the other side.
When she felt like she could move again she looked back, just in time to see all three SUVs - dodging and weaving between the cars - continue on in the other direction! He’d lost them all... for now.
“Where are we going?” she asked nervously, finally able to catch her breath.
He pressed multiple buttons and rolled up all the windows. But his fine hair was already sticking up in all directions, making him look just a little bit more crazy. “I’m taking you someplace safe. I have friends who can help you...” He took a relatively-long look at her. “Rory, are you... alright?” he ventured awkwardly.
Now he was acting like the Ben she knew. She chose to ignore that for now. “How did you find me?”
He frowned at the lack of reply. But he gave her all the details. He stayed casual and focused at the same time, as they traveled at breakneck speeds towards their apparent destination.
“Basically... when you went missing, the top brass flipped a lid. And not just Laherty’s guys, either. They questioned everyone. Analyzed everything. Theories flew around for what had happened to you, even at my clearance level, until the readings...”
He took a breath. “It took them a while to isolate, with the size of the area they were searching. But they managed to pull up satellite surveillance feed for where they’d all occurred. And one shows, pretty clearly, some kind of freaky, psychedelic portal thing opening with a single traveler stepping through it. A few minutes later it happens again... but no one leaves. So they started a more... focused, search - involving anyone you’d ever come into contact with. And that’s where I joined in.”
He gave her a longing look - but got back nothing. Only the usual, somewhat disturbing expression of reticent, wary intelligence on an otherwise innocent face.
He got the hint, bobbed his head and sighed. “They were more than happy to have someone who was a friend of yours help out. I told them all I knew about you; helped them search...”
His sharp, skinny-guy features began to betray a sense of guilt. “It was all under the pretext that you’d been kidnapped. That they needed to find you, before something really bad happened.” He lowered his brow and shook his head. “But I just... had a feeling, that that wasn’t all there was to it. I mean, a missing kid is one thing. But they pulled out all the stops. Every order they gave made it seem like they were trying to track down a convict... not someone who needed rescuing. So, when we finally got a hit - this hit - I grew a pair, and asked them to take me along.” He smiled to himself. “I’m not ‘combat-ready’, you know. Pretty sure they only agreed because they thought you’d come with me willingly.” He nodded sideways in agreement with himself. “Apparently they were right.”
She glared at him intently - fingers snaking around a dagger. “What.”
He glanced down at her with his old squirrely smile, still unfazed. “Just kidding. Calm down, kid,” he said, laughing through some of those words.
Barely a minute later though, he was serious. “I’m glad you decided to trust me though. I just... I don’t know what I’d do if I had to see you treated the way that they treat all those lusies...”
She stared, studying, analyzing every nuance of behavior he’d shown thus far. He started to say more, but couldn’t get the words out. His lumpy throat twitched, just barely, and his eyes began to glisten, reflecting more brightly all the headlights on the road. He shook it off quickly though, in typical manly fashion, and changed the subject. She smiled. She’d messed up this time - but the absolute most unlikely of heroes had come to her rescue, somehow. Maybe she wasn’t cursed.