“How long did it take him to reply back?” Mary asked.
“Uh, a couple hours. It definitely wasn’t immediate” a timid Jocelyn replied.
Liz had forced her mom away from her experiments to come up and read the garbled message from the system admin. As Mom took control of the situation Liz immediately felt some of the burden drift away. This was heavy stuff, and as much as Liz wanted to think she could handle anything, this troubled her more than she cared to admit.
“How can you be so sure it’s a guy?” Liz questioned, noting Mom’s use of the pronoun.
“Looking at the tone, style, and experience I’ve had working with developers. Also, the person is referencing a ton of specifically human procedures and actions. While it’s possible that a female, or something else entirely, is trying to communicate with us, it makes a lot more sense if it’s from a human male. I assume you’ve considered the worst case?”
“That he’s actually an insane person trying to use us to take control of the system and rule the earth as his plaything?”
“Yes, that would be about the worst. I don’t think this is the case though. It’s possible that this person is exceptionally clever and is trying to catch us off guard, but there would be many better ways to gain our trust if that was the case. The immediate call to action, the desperation plain in the typing, and the overall sense of urgency speaks towards someone who is trying their best to fix something beyond their abilities. It feels genuine. I’d trust this person to try and do the right thing. The next question, if this person actually going to help as tired as they are or are they more likely to damage the system? Any insights you can provide there Jocelyn?”
“I don’t know. A PR theoretically would come with some code to review, but I have no idea how this system works. I also have no idea what the code would look like and if I’d be able to make head or tails of it.”
“It seems clear that you have some directed access to the core of what is now in place. I believe your ability is actually acting as a translation layer to some extent. After all, when you looked at your log messages, you clearly had different information than what we’re seeing. Something in your head is taking the data from the system and doing something more to it. If you can actually see the things this person is trying to do, I think you can make the judgement call at that point to act on it. Which brings us to the final issue.”
“How the hell are we going to get you into the Green Mountain jungle of doom?” Liz scrunched her face in contemplation.
“Can we not call it the ‘jungle of doom’ please? Maybe? It’s bad enough just going outside the house. I don’t know if I can go out there in the middle of it all. Not when there’s a storm coming. I just don’t know.”
“Jocelyn, my dear.” Jocelyn had started to cradle her arm again and was clearly freaking out. Mom went over to put a comforting hand on Jocelyn’s arm. “We cannot force you to do this, but I would be remiss to not point out that this is could be one of the most important things you could do for the people of Earth. I know this is incredibly unfair, and that you would give this task to someone else if you could, but you are quite possibly the only person who can do it. Unless this person can find another Admin, you could be the only hope we have of getting more information or even fixing the things that seem to be broken. Don’t decide yet. Think about it. Have Liz come up with a plan with you. Look at all the options. When you make your decision, let me know, and I’ll see what I can do to help.”
Mom left us to ponder her words and formulate a plan. We had a ton of time before we were going to do our school run. In the meantime, I was going to make sure Jocelyn had as much support as she needed. I knew exactly where to start.
“Ok, let’s make a list.”
Mark looked up at the school. Four days or training. Four days of support from the camp. Four days of uncertainty. It would all get resolved here one way or the other. He did a tenth and hopefully final check on his equipment just to be sure. His knives were secured and the first prototype of leather armor the camp had made fit him snugly. The dark material was tough and provided pretty good camouflage in addition to some extra protection from teeth. Not that he was worried about that with his armor and all. The armor was super cool. “Focus!” Mark told himself. He checked his paper charms and made sure they were ready to go and fingered the strange engraved seashells that Mike had handed him.
When Mark asked what they were, Mike had just given him a thumbs up and walked away. Fortunately, the note on top of them indicated what it would do, but still, dude could at least say one word. He’d have to ask his mom about Mike’s power when they got back. Regardless, the item was awesome. ‘Break to create field of silence around you for a few minutes’, the note had read. “No mind control for you sheriff jerk voice!” Mark mumbled.
Meanwhile, Liz was making her own final preparations. “You ready to go Natasha?” Liz asked.
Natasha lifted her arms in the air and squeaked affirmative. Liz took the opportunity to slide the custom made harness Sam had made over her head. The harness had a few notes and a small pencil tucked into its pockets. Natasha pulled some straps tight and with a few adjustments she squeaked that she was ready.
“You are just so cute! Now go be a superspy and be safe. I’ll be with you the entire time.” Liz gave her a quick pat on the head and handed her over to Mark.
“You be careful with her.”
“I will be. Ready for a ride Natasha?”
The little mouse nodded and hopped onto his shoulder. With an unspoken signal from Liz, Alana took off to scout. A few circles later and Liz turned to face Mark.
“West side, clear in one minute, patrol pattern is the same as yesterday.”
“Ok creepy eye girl, I’m on it.”
Mark thought Liz might have rolled her eyes at him, but since they were already completely white they just sorta vibrated a little bit. Mark shuddered in horror. Seriously creepy. He was inclined to say something else but he knew how important timing was. He instead took off through the trees.
Having scouted all sorts of paths over the past few days Mark picked his way through the thick jungle with confidence. He used his Mist Escape on sections that didn’t have much cover but otherwise the rapid growth of the biome provided excellent cover. Natasha tapped him on the shoulder twice. He had twenty seconds until the lookout would be out of range.
Mark meditated for a bit, both to recover some mana as well as calm his nerves. The next part was one of the harder bits. As the countdown in his head reached zero he sprang into action. First, he crushed a seashell and felt an odd bubble form around him. He snapped his fingers quick and smiled as it didn’t make any noise at all. Looking up, he hopped to the second floor windows and poked a small hole through a window with his knife. The breaking glass made no noise as Mark carefully pulled his knife back and held out his hand.
“All you mousey” he said to Natasha, who just looked back at him confused.
“Oh yeah, right, no sound.” Mark simply her a thumbs up which she returned before hopping through the space. Mark quickly headed back to cover and waited for the signal to retrieve Natasha. It was all in her hands now. Or paws. Wait, the mouse had thumbs, so that probably made them hands. Maybe. Regardless, Mark was ready and only slightly nervous. He hoped everyone would be okay.
Liz felt a nudge in her mind as Natasha pushed some thoughts her way. She was thankful of the extra range she now had, and switched her focus away from Alana back to her mouse. The fruits of her training were totally coming in handy. Liz’s adjusted her mind quickly and the dark corridors of the school came into focus. Natasha was pretty good at avoiding people, but without Liz’s help the little mouse had a lot of trouble figuring out how to navigate through the uniquely human space. Fortunately, Liz had a lot of practice with that.
Go up box thing, and cut into the silver thing, and then head along it.
The little mouse used her shadow coated claws to tear a small hole in the duct work and soon was making good time along the air conditioning system. Noise was kept to a minimum as the shadow pads they had developed over the past few days prevented her heavy paws from thudding on the flimsy material. Liz kept Natasha running along until she was getting close to the gym and heard some human voices. She sent Natasha to the openings so she could listen in on conversations. This was the hardest part since they had no idea where George would be inside the school. It didn’t take too long for Natasha to hit paydirt though.
“Yeah, the away team is patrolling down the east wing again, we still haven’t gotten all the barricades repaired there and they’re…” the sounds faded as whoever was speaking headed away from the vent. “Bingo” thought Liz, and pushed Natasha to head along a new set of corridors. She knew George had been with the away team previously and hopefully he still was. With any luck, she would find him alone and they would be able to get a message to him with a lot fewer prying eyes.
Several minutes and a harrowing near discovery later, Liz located George. He was hammering away at a makeshift barricade and Liz looked for an opportunity to catch his attention. She didn’t have to wait long.
“Guys, we need some more filler, I’ll grab a desk or two and bring em out.”
Seeing her chance she sent Natasha ahead into the room George was moving towards. As he was rummaging around the mouse sliced open the duct work and hopped down. She nimbly made her way over to a desk near George as he mumbled to himself about something. He looked tired, but otherwise ok.
“Where did OH MY GOD what?”
Natasha was holding a note in one paw and holding the other up to her mouth in the universal sign for “Shush up”.
“You ok George?” A voice asked from outside the room.
“Yeah, just slipped and almost fell. Sorry about that.” George tilted his head in confusion as the small mouse waved around the note indicating he should grab it.
A very confused looking George took the small piece of paper and soon his eyes widened in alarm after reading it’s contents. It had information about the growing capacity issue of the stabilization crystal and the dangers of not clearing out the area. George muttered a stream of swear words as he finished reading the note.
“You ok man?” The same voice from outside called.
“Yeah! Sorry, stubbed my toe.”
“Jeez dude, next time I’ll grab stuff, you’ll lose an arm or something soon.”
“I’m fine. Just. Fine. I’m fine. I’ll be right out.” George turned back to the mouse who was now holding a pencil and a blank sheet of paper.
“Liz does the weirdest things.” He said as he grabbed the writing implements.
A few seconds later he returned the note to the mouse who bundled it up and tucked it away into her harness. She pointed up towards the hole in the duct work she had made. George thought he understood the intention held his palm up towards to her. She hopped on and George lifted her towards the tear and with a quick jump the small creature vanished into the shadows.
Mark saw the signal and used his considerable momentum to shake the tree he was sitting in violently. A few random birds in the area all flapped upwards at the disturbance and drew away the attention of the guards as he stealthily made his way to the extraction point. Natasha was waiting for him on a ledge as the school investigated the loud noise and with a poof of mist he was gone.
It took all of Mark’s limited willpower not to grab the note from Natasha as he made his way back to Liz, but somehow he managed. Natasha jumped into the waiting hands of Liz who petted her on her little head.
“Who’s the best superspy mouse ever?”
Natasha spread her little paws out and squeaked to indicate that yes, she was indeed the best superspy mouse ever.
Mark was about to explode though. “Ok, cool. She’s the best. What does the note say?”
Liz took out the note and with deliberate gavitas started to read through it. Nodding to herself as she read it.
“Liz, I will be forced to stab you if you don’t read that aloud.”
“Ok, sorry, but seriously, this is bad.” Liz looked at Mark for a moment before continuing. “Promise me you’ll talk with Mom and Dad before you do anything.”
“OH MY GOD LIZ. Just read it! I’ll figure out what’s next after that.” Liz looked at Mark with concern but got to reading the note.
“Yo. Dude, thanks for the heads up on the splody crystal thing. Every night those apes crawl back into the mountain vine thing. I’ll just grab some folks and head up there after sunset and totally clear it out and we’ll be set. Thanks for having our backs man. After that, maybe I’ll swing by and say hi to my Mom.” Liz concluded in her best high school dudebro voice. “I can’t believe he’s that stupid. Is he really that stupid?”
Mark at this point wasn’t listening to Liz at all. If George was going to try and get to the mountain he’d probably have to fight off, like, hundreds of golden apes. Mark didn’t know how many things exactly they cleared a night around their own place, but he knew the count was up there. “We have to help him. He’s gonna get himself killed. Jesus. This sucks.”
Liz put a hand on Mark’s shoulder to stop his pacing and calm him down. All signs of frustration and amusement were gone. “Mark, we’re not going to let him kill himself. Relax. We’ll talk to Mom and Dad about this and come up with a plan. We know when he’s planning on heading out so we’re already ahead of the game for a change. We can do this. Ok?”
Mark looked over at his sister seeing the concern there. As much as she tried to play it calm and aloof he could tell she was really worried. He knew she was right though, and he would take all the help he could get to make sure his friend stayed safe.
Mark hoped someone came up a better plan than he could, because otherwise he’d be burying his best friend tonight.