Hammer Blow

OK, this week is a continuation from last week. That means the fifth part in the ongoing series. Yippie! Because of that there isn’t much I can say. Best thing to do is, if you haven’t, read the previous parts. Apart from that it’s about 11,900 words long. Enjoy!

Having stormed through the doorless opening of the concrete box which is sat inside the fire gutted building, Sanjiv cannot help but feel irritated that the commander and his strike team were the first inside. Not that there is much of an area to clear seeing as the inside of the box is a single room but that isn’t the point. Dana never gave such an order, to his knowledge, and he should know if she did seeing as they have not been apart since boarding the transport that ferried them here. Now is not the time to cause a scene. That is without a doubt how Dana would term it. Yet, that is because she doesn’t understand. If she did and knew what Sanjiv did she… She issued no order for the strike team to collapse into the room beyond the blasted doorway first! Yeah, I know, I know.

Sanjiv has a pistol levelled, finger looming close to the trigger. Not over it for that could result in an accidental discharge and from the commanders’ demeanour the middle aged man could well imagine the strike team leader would like an excuse to shoot. No need to give him one. Yet, had he been permitted entrance first this wouldn’t have been an issue and Sanjiv’s finger would very much have been on the trigger, ready to squeeze.

However, the sight he is faced with is pretty much what he feared most. Hence, that is why his shoulders have dropped and the expression on his face is etched with roiling misery. You might be wondering why and the reason is quite simple; the only occupant of the room, a man, is sat in a chair surrounded by computer equipment, high end custom stuff, dead.

Dana drifts up alongside Sanjiv. He takes note of her arrival and that he finds it suspicious she was that far behind. It’s as if she planned this. Not the death of the man who was their only lead by the storming of the room but her strike team entering first. He’ll quiz her on that later. If anyone can get the truth out of her it is him. What good would it do to know in hindsight that there was an order for the strike team to enter first? They might be the cause of… He never gets to finish.

“We’re too late.” The director says with a shake of her head.

“Room is clear director.”

Dana knows the declaration is procedure but at this moment a large part of her wishes it had not been uttered. Still, she cannot lash out at the Commander. It isn’t his fault what has happened here but she needs answers and so orders, “Body check. I need to know what happened and when.”

“Isn’t it obvious?” Is the retort which slips from between Sanjiv’s lips. His tone is heavy with insinuation. Thankfully the strike team commander pays it no mind while issuing a quick wave of a hand to one of his people who steps forward to begin an examination.

Sanjiv wonders what background they have that makes them the appropriate candidate for the job. By the looks of things they are just another squaddie. The middle aged man’s goes to say something. Before he gets the chance Dana steps forward, cutting him off. She says nothing. She doesn’t have to. Her movement was enough to distract Sanjiv. He should curse her for that but rather he marks out her ingenuity. A smirk creeps across his face and he takes a mental note that he’ll have to watch out for distractions like this one in the future. It’s a new tactic certainly, which he didn’t expect from the director. Little does she know he’s learned new tricks too.

Dana takes a quick look at the body. To her untrained eye she can conclude what anyone would be capable of; that they were male and that they are very dead. Yet, there is one thing she can determine which members of the general public would not and that is what appears to be the cause of the man’s death, neural overload. She’ll need it confirmed as that might very well not be what ended this unknown man’s life. However, he is surrounded by a great deal of impressive custom fabricated technology. Sure, the agency has more and better but whoever this man was he was not a part of a group like the agency, or the government. That rules out a mole or a nation being involved in whatever this is. At least for the moment it does. There is no guarantee that a national government is not involved as they might have paid, via a shell company or fifty, some private dissidents. It wouldn’t be the first time, not by a long shot, and would doubtfully be the last either, if that is the case.

Finally, the strike team doctor straightens her bent back, cocks her head, puts a curled hand to her chin and waits. If Dana did not know the woman prior to today she would be inclined to continue waiting in silence. As it happens Dana knows Ginetta only ever adopts such a pose once she has made her assessments and conclusion, which she is ready to pass over, in this case to the director.

“What are your observations, doctor?”

 Ginetta does not reply at first. Rather, she stays quiet for a few additional seconds of deep consideration before giving her answer, “He appears to have died from a catastrophic neural overload. I cannot be sure without further study but judging by the state of the interface surgically implanted into the rear of his skull it looks to have been the point of some artificial insemination probe.”

The words coming out of this short redheaded woman’s mouth mean nothing to Sanjiv. They are all technical jargon and he is a man who in a previous life had served as a Datastar. Am I getting old? No, of course I’m not. This will be some agency vocabulary guideline nonsense that Dana has dreamt up in the years since his departure. Half of it is likely to mean something entirely different and yet all those around wear expressions or nod as if they fully understand the gibberish.

Sanjiv hates being the only lost and clueless one in the room, but while he is right about the words being agency jargon he is wrong about them being terms dreamt up by the director herself. Sure, she has adopted them but by no means were they developed or employed at her demand.

“So what you’re saying is this man was deliberately terminated. How long ago was this?”

“Weeks, I’d say. The scorching around the eyes isn’t fresh at all and there is no way he could’ve…”

“Bullshit…” Sanjiv interjects only to be met with a roomful of faces that turn his way to stare at him as though he’s said some blasphemous line in the middle of a busy church. He feels no guilt for his outburst and has been tracking men like this corpse for long enough to know that this doctor is either a fraud or dim-witted.

“If you have something to share Sanjiv; out with it. We don’t have all day. Warren might be safe but…”

“Don’t treat me like a child Dana. You’re smarter than to try that old of an approach on me. We were the same level once.” Sanjiv can feel his anger boiling to the fore. He doesn’t know what it is but something about Dana gets under his skin in a way it never used to. Many times he’s tried to ascertain as to why. He’s been through the most obvious possibilities, such as jealousy. After all, why was she made the director over him? They were, once, on the same level. They had both served as Datastars. Hell, they are the last, until the re-emergence of Warren that is.

To Sanjiv’s shock Dana does not bite. Rather, she casts a glance around the room and then nods. Without a word the Commander and his strike team, including the doctor, shuffle off and out of the concrete box. It takes a couple minutes and following that Sanjiv hears distant voices. One sounds very much like the commander issuing orders. Sanjiv can’t catch what is being used but can take an educated guess as to what it might be.

Prior to their departure the looks on the faces as they shuffled off could only be labelled as severe. It seems the director has done more than retain her old reputation, she’s built on it. Sanjiv imagines he knows what will be coming next, demands that he not speak to her like that in front of her people. He has his retort planned out. It’s simple; screw you. He thinks that’ll be the best balance between disrespect and blunt wishing to move forward succinctness.

Alas Dana utters no such words. Rather, she queries, “Is this really how we’re going to do this? Can we not work together? You seemed open to the prospect previously. Then, suddenly there is a flip of a switch and it’s like I’m faced with an utterly different human being to the one I knew.”

“That’s a strange thing to say, human being. Is that because you don’t see yourself as one anymore? It might explain a few things if that were the case.” Still Sanjiv is trying to get a rise out of the director.

“Grow up Sanjiv. You were never this childish. And I don’t have to keep you in on this. I can cut you out at any time. Perk of being the director. Remember? Or did you forget who has authorisation and authority here. So, are you going to act like an adult and tell me what your fucking issue is?” Her voice is calm as the words leave her mouth, too clam which is why the middle aged man, former agent and Datastar is a little taken about by the sudden curse thrown in. It isn’t at all what he’d been expecting from her. Not that it changes how he responds once he’s gotten over his initial shock.

“Your team went in before us. I didn’t agree to that.”

“Is that what this is about? Really! You’re in a pissy mood not because our only lead is dead, and has been for weeks accordingly, but because you didn’t get to march into the room first.” Dana is in disbelief. She knew Sanjiv could be difficult but this is a whole new level of pathetic in her eyes. It’s like he doesn’t understand exactly how important everything else is in comparison. If he did surely he wouldn’t value so highly such a non-issue. Plus, Dana never said they would be going in first. She kicked the issue a little ways ahead and then never updated her order. Sure, it might have been a tad underhanded, but at the end of the day Sanjiv is not a part of the agency. He is, for all intents and purposes, a civilian who is being given the courtesy of having permission to tag along. It is permission that can be yanked out from under him at any moment and for any reason. He wouldn’t even need to be issued with the cause as to why. That is but some of the power Dana holds as director.

“You don’t see me as an equal. I have information but you barely recognise my presence.”

“You aren’t an equal. The agency views you as a civilian. I have to treat you as such. You might not like it, and hell I might not want to, but that is how it works. I’m the director not the queen of the fucking universe. I have to follow procedures as much as anyone else, more so in some instances. And if you have something to contribute, please be my guest because we need all the help we can get.” The director’s words come out far more anger inflected than she wanted or meant them too, but it’s too late to alter that now for they are already in the past.

Her rant however, does have the desired effect as Sanjiv stops. He doesn’t launch further into a tirade of his own, like he had expected himself too. Rather, he stays quiet and considers what Dana has said. For the first time in a long while he feels not quite guilt but something approaching it. When next he speaks his tone is more like the Sanjiv she’d once known. Not for the first time since they reconnected. What she feels is the best description of their ‘relationship’ as it currently stands.

“You’re right. This is for Warren. It’s why we’re here. Yet, something seems wrong about the conclusion that he’s been dead for weeks…” Sanjiv gestures towards the heavily reclined lifeless corpse of the man in the padded chair. He has a shaved head, is clinging hard to the arms of the seat he is laid back in and has such severe burns around his eyes that it is impossible to ascertain what colour they might once have been.

“In what way?” The director can imagine where her former friend might be taking this but elects to act as guide rather than anything else for the time being.

Turning about on the spot Sanjiv takes in the sheer volume of tech that is surrounding them in this room. None of it is leisure based by the looks of things and there is no furniture in the traditional sense past the chair the corpse is laid up in.

“Can we be sure this is where he died?” It’s a fair question as far as Dana is concerned but not one she had considered. Sanjiv might be surprised if he knew this but she’s pleased he’s surprised her. It might be the first time, bar maybe him saving her life, he’s managed such a feat without it having negative connotations attached.

Looks like the old you is still in there somewhere after all, the director thinks only to admit aloud, “I suppose we cannot, or should I say; we should not.”

That reassurance, that lack of antagonism disarms Sanjiv completely. A flicker of a half smile flutters across one side of his face.

“It could be this guy, whoever he is, is a plant. He might not be a part of whoever is behind this.”

“Have you come across such things previously?” Dana is curious now as to what Sanjiv might have seen and faced in the intervening decade plus during which they never saw nor spoke to one another.

“No…” The middle aged man pauses unsure his response should have been so hasty, rash. Hence, that is why he admits, “…I don’t know, maybe. Not to my knowledge but… Anything is possible. I’ve been after this group for a long time and truthfully… I don’t think I’m much closer today than I was when I first started. A pile of bodies and plenty of claims that they will reveal nothing is all I’ve been met with.”

A sigh escapes his lips; his eyes dipped low and blinking slow. “Whatever I found to link me to the next chain was more chance than good detective work. Tenuous at best and yet… somehow it worked. Yet, I’m sure all I’ve ever done is circle the periphery. None of those I’ve left in my wake have been high up the food chain, not really.”

Regrettably Dana can feel the frustration and sadness coming off Sanjiv. What makes it worse is that she not only understands but mirrors it for she too has been searching for people who have always remained in the shadows no matter what. Now more than ever she wonders whether she should share details meant only for the directors’ ears, her ears. Alas, something tells her this is not the time. The people the agency has been after may not even be the same as those who are behind this. Yet, that thought continues to sit awkwardly with her. Is it a lack of trust in Sanjiv? She doesn’t think so but can’t be sure. There is nothing, bar his stubborn and overly blunt manner, to lead her to believe he is duping her. You’ve been director too long! She is well aware. If there were someone capable of taking her place she would have handed the role off a while ago. Lies! You wouldn’t hand it off. It’s all you’ve got. Without it you’re… She forces the thoughts aside. They aren’t useful and won’t be until… Until what? Until you find answers that Sanjiv has been searching out for more than a decade? How likely is that?

“Director, what are your orders?” The commander of the strike team has appeared in the doorway of the concrete box inside the ruined shell of the multi-storey building.

An answer is not immediately forthcoming. Dana feels there is need to think. When she answers she insists, “I need the doctor back in here. Hold the building until further orders.”

The commander nods, turns and departs leaving the doorway open like the gaping rectangular maw it was in the moments prior to his appearance. Less than a minute later Ginetta comes striding through that same opening. If there is any hesitance about being in Sanjiv’s presence she does not show it. Though, she does make it abundantly clear that she is showing no acknowledgement of his presence. Dana can’t say she blames the younger, taller and better rested woman. Plus, she notes the way Sanjiv awkwardly shifts from one foot to the other. His gaze is averted, eyes dipped low once more. That is a sign of remorse. He might not even be aware he’s doing it, but the director is. She wonders if she should help broker peace only to discard the notion because time is short. Is it? Why is it?

“Doctor, could you take another look at the body. Run us through what you see as you see it, please.” Rarely does the director ask for someone on one of the many rungs below her to politely do something, Ginetta is aware of that, which is why she gives the request a long period of careful consideration. Still, she is surprised this middle aged man, Sanjiv, hasn’t butted in. Sure, he looks calmer now than he did previously. In fact, Ginetta’s best description of the expression that had been on his face is that of a bulldog chewing a wasp, or three. He looked so agitated and pissed off that any alternative description, she thinks, would best be termed as misguided and naive.

“I can.” Is the doctor’s ultimate reply which comes some time later. It is accompanied by a wish to declare she has demands to accompany her willingness to help. She decides better of it to issue them. Not because of the director but due to the presence of this Sanjiv. He might not, though he looks calm currently, react in a way which would be conducive to future relations. And while Ginetta has no reason to doubt the directors might she does have reason to question her decision to permit this civilian’s presence. She hasn’t a clue who he is, was or might someday be. To her he looks like nothing more than a haggard vagabond the director could only have found on a street corner partaking in some hustle or another. Surely, that cannot be the case for that would be totally out of character for the middle aged woman. What other explanation is there than that? I don’t know, but you’ve delayed long enough and need to get on with the request you have agreed to. You’re right!

Ginetta having realised her delay, and being faced with the pair who are surprisingly watching and waiting patiently, spurs herself into motion. She starts at the bottom and elects to work toward the head. From her initial study of the corpse that is where the most relevant evidence of cause of death appears to reside.

“I like to work from bottom to top.” Is the doctor’s explanation, one she feels compelled to give to avert any potential queries from being uttered.

“Whatever suits you best doctor.” The director says with a reassuring tone of voice.

Ginetta stoops low and drops into a squat so she is closer to being on level with the man’s feet. They are exposed, free of socks and shoes, she lifts one, then the other, examines around and in-between the toes. There is nothing out of ordinary, which is largely what she expected, yet she confirms as much to the middle aged pair watching her intently. Both nod while she carries on with her examination, now of the legs. “From what I can see there is nothing out of the ordinary with this man’s legs. However, I cannot easily access the backs to be certain. Not that I believe anything will be revealed once such access is possible.”

“Can it not be done here?” Sanjiv feels a little uneasy asking a question but it’s done now and with it issued his unease fades from the fore, where it had been as the words had passed his lips.

“I’m afraid not. I would need someone to roll the body over so I could do a full…”

“If the director agrees, I can roll the body for your study doctor.” The words pass Sanjiv’s lips carefully. He doesn’t want to cause an argument. Not now that he’s thinking rationally and has banished his anger so it cannot get the better of him.

He looks to Dana for reaction either in the positive or negative with regards to his request. The director in turn glances to Ginetta for confirmation or denial of her comfort with such a prospect. She offers no inclination either way and so Dana wishing to know as much as possible orders, “Do it. We need to know as much as is possible as early as we can manage.”

“Yes director.” Ginetta replies only to take a sharp inhale of breath right after. Sanjiv ignores it, though fully understands why it’s performed as he steps forward, grabs a hold of the corpse and pulls it toward him just enough so it rolls to grant access to the back of the man’s legs. The corpse’s one shoulder strains to maintain its death grip of the armrests, but following a quick analysis Ginetta has to conclude the backs of the man’s legs show nothing she would consider as being out of the ordinary. Yet, something a little further up does catch her eye. It’s located at the base of the spine.

“Is there any chance you can keep him there, I might have found something?”

Sure. You just let me know when I can roll him back. Until then I’ll keep him in place as best I can.”

Ginetta smiles to show her gratitude. To her mild surprise Sanjiv returns the gesture and notes that he is quite charming when he’s not flying off the handle like some normally doped up junkie suffering withdrawal symptoms. Who would have thought it, not Ginetta that’s for sure.

Having turned her attention back to the thing that caught her eye, Ginetta moves closer until the small metallic hexagon shape embedded in the dead man’s skin is about as close to her face as she can legitimately manage. The enhancement, as she would term it, is foreign to her and unlike any design she has ever come across previously.

Enhancements are not at all the norm for civilians. They are for military yes, but this is not like any military-grade piece she’s come across. Plus, it bares none of the manufacturing details which would be present if it were fabricated by one of the enormous arms companies which supply the national military’s with all their tech. No, this is undoubtedly homebrew, custom. It makes sense seeing as most of the tech around them looks very much the same, more refined than this piece but unmistakably not off the shelf, so to speak.

Without looking Ginetta probes into one of the pockets of her uniform. Doctor or no she is dressed in exactly the same fatigues as the other members of the strike team. Prior to joining the agency she’d worked in the militaries, yes plural. She didn’t stick to one, though they were all army positions. Instead, she was seconded across all the militaries of the four nations which had once been termed the USA. She didn’t like any of them but some are lower on that list than others.

She puts the reasons why and the events that led to her ultimate resigning from the army out of her mind to return her focus to the present. And having fished a pair of thin tweezers out of the pocket her fingers dove into she slowly guides them and their rubber tips toward the enhancement chip.

Her intent is to extract it and hand it over to the director. To her that seems the best course of action, especially as the director might have a better idea than Ginetta as to what it is, maybe. The doctor is not convinced about that but it’s better than trying to crowd the body and get a look at it in turns, which feels as though would be the alternative until they are back at HQ in one of the examination spaces.

Tweezers meeting metal, Ginetta breathes a sigh of relief when there are no adverse effects. Her conviction was not as steadfast as she might have wanted to believe it to be and yet try as she might she cannot pry the chip free. Due to fear of causing damage to the enhancement Ginetta elects to attempt her extraction method no further and instead suggests, “Director, I have something I think you should take a look at. I cannot extract it, sadly.”

“What is it?” Dana retorts but waits for no reply before wandering around the head of the corpse to join the strike team doctor’s side.

Ginetta pulls back and with the rubber tipped tweezers gestures to what should be the focus of the director’s attention. Dana understands immediately but cannot say she has ever seen anything like it previously. Her brow furrows as a result and reminds her how little she likes to feel as though she is being kept in the dark. By who? Over what? You don’t know what this is and nor does Ginetta. So why is that your thinking?

The silence, and Dana’s run of thoughts, is shattered when Sanjiv asks, “What is it? What have you found?”

“A… chip.” Dana doesn’t know how else to categorise it.

“What does it look like?” The tone of Sanjiv’s voice turns monotone leaving Dana with a need to raise her head and look the man in the eyes. She sees concern there. Not panic, but…

“It’s hexagonal, covered in chiplets, there’s a transistor, no wires…” Ginetta explains without thought or pause.

“Is the board it’s mounted upon a silver grey?”

“Yea…. How did you know?” Is the query which leaks from Dana’s mouth.

The middle aged man gulps but makes no attempt to avert his gaze now. His eyes are locked on Dana’s. She wants to ask what the problem is but before she gets the chance Sanjiv says, “Step away, slowly.”

“What is it?” Ginetta queries not having caught how grave the look on Sanjiv’s face is.

“Do as he says doctor.” The director urges with a raised hand meant to guide the younger woman beside her backward and away from the body.

“But what is it?” Ginetta queries for a second time. She is unwilling to let go of potential knowledge because her curiosity has got the better of her.

Sanjiv debates whether to blurt out what they’ve found but settles on doing so being far too reckless and potentially quite unwise until they put a little distance between them and the body. Though, the presence of the chip, the enhancement, does answer as to why a concrete box inside an abandoned building has been erected.

Much to her relief, Dana manages to guide the doctor back until Sanjiv believes there is enough space not for them to be in any danger of the chip being triggered. The fact that the doctor’s probing did not was more good fortune than it likely being a dead component in his mind. That is not to say he at no point considered the alternative. Alas, he felt it wasn’t worth the risk and was best to err of the side of caution. After all, if that chip triggers everything in this concrete box will be overloaded with a skin searing electrical charge. It’s what, contrary to initial appearance, must have scorched the man’s eyes. Almost certainly it would have been a contributing factor to his cause of death. And without doubt that means this man, whoever he had been, was definitely a part of the group he’s spent years tracking. Having come across chips such as these a few times during his pursuit he’s seen firsthand what they are capable of. One should have killed him but he got incredibly lucky. No reason, in his eyes, to tempt fate a second time. Not when he is far more aware of what the chip is capable of now compared to when it almost cost him his life some eight and half years ago.

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