Wendy's first solo mission is surprisingly easy, because her boss's kidnappers posted their entire plan online. Publicly. Seeing as their endgame is the downfall of all proprietary software and the rise of open-source (and Wendy's still not a hundred percent sure why that had to involve kidnapping the Middleman), it makes sense, but it also gives Wendy everything she needs to take them down..
"Nice work, Dubbie," says the Middleman as she unties his restraints.
"Our plan was sheer elegance in its freeware simplicity!" spits one of his kidnappers from the corner where Wendy left him tied up.
"This was fun," Wendy tells the Middleman, pocketing her Swiss Army knife. "We should do this more often."
The Middleman looks around at the various assailants, then back at Wendy. "You...want more solo missions?"
"Well, yeah." She gives him her best shit-eating grin, and he looks uncertain for a moment before smiling back at her.
"We can make that happen," he says. "Now, you'd better get started on the paperwork for all this."
Wendy's smile disappears.
The next time is deliberate. The Middleman drives anyway and doesn't give any indication until they pull up in front of the crime scene – a comic-book and hobby store, sweet – yanks the emergency brake, and turns to Wendy.
"This one's all yours," he tells her, with the paternal smile that in some circumstances borders on the condescending. Not this time, though. Wendy's brain interprets his statement to mean that she gets to hold the gun.
"Really?" she asks, trying to keep the hope out of her voice.
"Really and truly," he says, and motions to the glove compartment for her to pick their identities.
After about three minutes of shuffling through them, she sighs and settles on the least-sucky identities she can find.
"Who picks these names, anyway?" she grumbles, passing the Middleman his ID.
He takes it, and looks vaguely affronted, in that way he always does when she suggests a cup of coffee or makes disparaging comments about country music. "I do."
Wendy bites back a that-explains-a-lot and pops open her door.
"Technically, if I'm in charge of this one, shouldn't I be the one driving?" she says as casually as she can as they walk towards the scene of the crime ("Excelsior! Comics and Collectibles").
"Nice try," says the Middleman, and Wendy takes that to mean no.
The crime itself is immediately apparent once they get inside. There is a giant tree growing in the middle of the shelves, several far-too-lifelike limbs sprouting from it in a way that suggests its appearance was unexpected by whoever was standing there at the time. Either that, or it's a new and daring choice in indoor horticulture.
There's a clerk standing right by it, staring at one of the arms with a look of despair.
Wendy waits for a moment, until the Middleman nudges her and she realizes that she probably gets to introduce them, too. She clears her throat.
"Excuse me, sir. My name is Illyana Kuryakin, and this is my - " She hesitates, but barely. " - junior associate, Napoleon Solo. We're with the United Network for Comic Legal Enforcement. We understand you've had rather, um, severe property damage to your trade paperbacks."
The clerk switches his attention to Wendy, then to the Middleman, the force of whose glare she can feel without even looking. "Uh," he says. "Yeah. It was a promo display of Neil Gaiman..."
"Novels, graphic novels, or both?" asks Wendy, feeling a pang in her heart at the news.
"Both," laments the clerk. "Including the illustrated edition of Stardust."
"Not the Charles Hess?" asks Wendy, horrified.
The Middleman clears his throat, and Wendy blinks. Right.
"Can you tell us anything about how this happened?" She jerks a thumb at the tree, and the clerk's face crumples with grief.
"I turned around to restock the Batfamily promos and when I looked back, it was just...there." He sniffed. "Willard was standing there just a second before..."
"We're very sorry for your loss," says the Middleman gravely.
"He borrowed my Battlestar Galactica DVDs," wails the clerk. "How is he going to give them back now?"
"We're kind of more concerned with how the tree got there," points out Wendy. "Do you know of anything that could've done this?"
"No, nothing!" The clerk is actually crying now. "I mean, he said he had an enchanted pack of Magic: The Gathering cards that brought an all new meaning to 'tapping mana,' but other than that..."
Wendy rolls her eyes, and can hear the Middleman's sigh.
"Could we see just see the cards?"
On the way back out to the car, the offending deck carefully placed in an evidence bag, the Middleman makes a face.
"Well, you said I had to call the shots," says Wendy. "And let's face it, a tall, all-American aw-shucks white guy and a Latina walk in there, they're going to assume you're in charge."
"Associate emeritus, perhaps," suggests the Middleman. "Or possibly 'my distinguished but admittedly somewhat senile colleague.'"
"You'd rather be senile than junior?" asks Wendy, raising her eyebrows. "And anyway, quit complaining – at least I used your identities this time."
All in all, a surprisingly open-and-shut case.
Then the open-source freaks get out again and unleash a giant cybernetic penguin on the city. Wendy has no idea what that has to do with open-source, but even though this time they don't kidnap the Middleman, he lets her take the lead anyway.
He shrugs when she asks why. "You said the last time they had uploaded their plans onto the world-domination wiki. I can't say I'm a fan of all this new media phooey – too close to the principles of the Red Menace for my taste."
Wendy raises an eyebrow. "You think that the free and uncontrolled distribution of information is Communist?"
"Gosh, no," says the Middleman. "I mean the Red Menace, who came up against the Middleman in 1952 by inventing an internet that ran entirely on vacuum-tube computers and trying to use it to spread viruses."
Wendy looks at him for a long moment. "Boss, if you want me to teach you how to use Google, it's okay. You can say it. I won't laugh at you."
"Say what you will, Dubbie," says the Middleman primly, "but sometimes there's no beating the classics."
"The pinnacle of Von Neumann architecture, if you ask me."
The best part is, they apparently never learn, because they posted their plans again.
"And how long have you been working in the starter-fluid industry?" asks Wendy, tucking her badge away.
Doctor Prometheus tilts his lined face up at the ceiling, rocking back on his heels in thought. "Well, that was – let me see now – I'd have to say about fifty years last Tuesday. Didn't quite make it into the Manhattan Project, you see, and figured flames were close to explosions." He gives her the kind of smile that means he's trying to joke. Wendy's not laughing.
"And you've been working with Combustion Co. for all that time?"
"I thought up the tagline myself," Prometheus agrees proudly.
"'Combustion Co. - bringing fire into your life,'" Wendy recites.
Prometheus digs a butterscotch out of his pocket and pops it into his mouth. "That's the one."
"Mhmm," says Wendy, narrowing her eyes. "And how long have you been working on spontaneous human combustion?"
Prometheus's kindly old man routine disappears. "Wait, what?"
"Really?" Wendy's patience snaps, and she grabs Prometheus's disgustingly-patterned shirt and slams him against the nearest wall. "Still want to deny it?" she demands. "My boss is currently freezing his ass off in his cryogenic chamber to keep him from bursting into flames and all signs point to you. Thing is, I don't want to handle his paperwork, and I've gotten kind of used to having him around. So why don't you tell me your nefarious plan so I can go ahead and foil it, and then I won't have to kill you?"
"I swear to God, lady, I've got no idea what you're talking about!" babbles Prometheus, raising his hands in supplication. "Seriously! You know why I didn't make it into the Manhattan Project? It's because I'm useless at R&D - I handle the business end of things exclusively, I swear!"
"Yeah? Because somebody gave my boss a bad case of the spontaneous human combustions and the chemicals used were sold to your company!"
"My son does all of the research, I swear I don't - " Prometheus breaks off at the look on Wendy's face. "No, he wouldn't, I promise, he's not that much of an idiot - "
"Somehow I'm having trouble believing that," says Wendy, but she lets go of Prometheus. "Where's your son right now?"
His son right now was, in fact, stirring his giant vat marked 'For Big Boom, Just Add Humans,' and it only took seeing the look in Wendy's eye for Prometheus Junior to fork over the cure.
Wendy finally sees the Middleman's apartment when he's late for work one day, which never happens. Ida is just as disturbed as Wendy, since he apparently has had a perfect-attendance streak ever since Raveena Rao trained him into it – and damn if that isn't a story Wendy really, really wants to hear, but seriously, priorities.
The Middleman's apartment is tiny, and located right on top of Ops. The refrigerator is full of perishables, mostly of the dairy variety, but the pots and pans tell a different story – they don't have any of the natural wear and tear that comes from regular, or even sporadic, use. There are several half-empty takeout containers, and a menu for a local diner on the counter, folded open.
There's a living room, with the perfectly-angled throw-pillows on the couch that signify that it never gets used. There's even a TV, and a remote sitting on the coffee table. Both have a thin layer of dust.
The bedroom gets some use, at least – the fitted sheet is tucked tightly, with military-crisp corners, but the top sheet and comforter are thrown to one side. Wendy feels the bared mattress, and it's cold, but when she slips a hand underneath the comforter there's a trace of lingering warmth.
"I don't think you're going to find his stash of Mary Jane, if that's what you're looking for."
Wendy rolls her eyes, but turns to face Ida. "It's still warm under the covers – he can't have been gone more than half an hour, and he was supposed to be at work fifteen minutes ago. Meaning something must've stopped him in that half hour, and seeing as he lives literally right on top of Ops..."
"I'm not disagreeing," says Ida, with her usual sarcastic smile. "I just didn't think you were that smart."
"Your faith in me warms my soul," murmurs Wendy, but her heart isn't really in it. She's already scanning the rest of the room, trying to figure out where he might have gone. Also, she's trying to resist the temptation to snoop. "Can you track his Middlewatch, find out where he is?"
They go back downstairs to the HAYDAR, and Wendy contemplates what may have been upstairs if her boss had been a normal human being and not, well, the Middleman. A DVD collection. Cookbooks. Any indication of actual human occupancy. A pair of jeans, maybe – and it's a strange thought, that Wendy, over half of whose wardrobe consists of various types of denim, has never seen her boss in jeans. Or, for that matter, relaxed.
Wendy makes a mental note to get him drunk sometime.
Her train of thought is derailed when she hears the ping. "I got a hit!" says Ida.
Driving the Middlemobile feels weird. Wendy's done it a couple times already, but it still feels like wearing her mother's heels and lipstick when she was five, out-of-place and awkward. Besides, the brakes suck and parallel parking the Middlemobile compared to the SmartCar? Hellish.
"Is he still inside?" Wendy asks her own Middlewatch, as she pulls on the parking brake. She's in front of the Baltar Computing Corporation building, and she's already getting a bad feeling about this.
"His Middlewatch is, at any rate," Ida confirms. "You going in hot?"
Wendy double-checks her weapon, and can't resist the obvious pun. "I'm always hot."
She grabs an ID from the glove compartment and heads inside.
"Sophie Germain," she tells the receptionist, brandishing the ID. "Computer Security expert. I've been hired to audit the company's security practices."
The receptionist fumbles to call the upper management, and Wendy can't help but feel a bit scornful – she's been there, done that, and she was a way better receptionist, just saying.
Her tour guide, who introduces himself as Dr. Tigh, takes her through the building.
"We're mostly focusing on artificial intelligence right now," admits Tigh, "but I assure you, our security is top-of-the-line."
"Artificial intelligence?" asks Wendy, raising her eyebrows.
"We're trying to map human brains into binary code to reproduce them artificially. A good number of our employees have already had their brains mapped and added to our database. Separately, of course – it wouldn't do to let all those psyches bleed together. We can call up any of the maps at any time – it's a quite sophisticated filing system."
Wendy spares a moment of pity for whoever has to deal with all that filing. "So, what, if I asked for a digital Dr. Tigh, you could just burn it onto a DVD?"
"Oh, of course not!" laughs Tigh. "Each map is far more than four gigabytes. An external hard drive, perhaps. And technically, we refer to the maps as primes. So Tigh Prime, if you will." He glances sideways at her. "You know, we're always looking for volunteers to add to our database. What do you think? Sophie Germain Prime?"
"Can't say I like the sound of that," says Wendy, but there's an idea forming in her head now. "Why do you want so many people in your database, anyway?"
"Every mind is different, but some are unique. Some can offer things that others can't. Once we get a fully diversified database, it shouldn't be too hard to begin mixing and matching qualities, to create the ultimate artificial intelligence."
"You know what sounds like a great name for something like that?" says Wendy innocently. "Ultron."
"Ultron," says Tigh, trying out the syllables. "I like it."
They're coming up on an empty stretch of hallway now – as good a time as any. "So here's a question. What if you want to map someone's brain and they don't want it to be mapped?"
Tigh looks genuinely confused at this. "Then...we don't map it? There are whole stacks of paperwork to be filled out every time a map is done anyway, legal releases and so on. A necessary, if FDA-mandated evil."
"Speaking of evil," says Wendy, narrowing her eyes. "I don't suppose there's any reason why someone would be kidnapped out of their apartment and held prisoner here, huh?"
Here, though, there's a momentary telltale flicker in Tigh's eyes, and Wendy doesn't hesitate in drawing her gun. "Take me to where you're holding him," she says, keeping her voice even. "Now!"
"You need to understand," pleads Tigh, "it was in the name of science! She said that he would stop us if we didn't do something!"
Tigh sighs. "AIDA. The database. The maps got refiled somehow, and she achieved sentience, spontaneously! Do you know what a breakthrough that is? The grants we could get? The papers we could publish?" Tigh's eyes shine with ambition. "We're already working on the letter to the Journal of Artificial Intelligence Research – it's going to be revolutionary!"
Academics. Yeesh. "Just tell me where my boss is," Wendy repeats, "and maybe I won't use this gun on every piece of circuitry in the building."
Tigh stares at her in horror. "You wouldn't!"
"You know, someone once told me that no information is ever really lost." Wendy looks at her gun thoughtfully. "I may have to take that as a challenge."
"This way! This way! Just, please, don't bring in any magnets!"
It only takes three guards going down Pain's River and a quick trip on AIDA's main server to a "Nigerian prince"'s homepage to take AIDA down, crippled by viruses, and as Wendy unties the Middleman, he gives her a wide smile.
"Good job, Dubbie," he tells her.
"For Christmas next year," Wendy informs him as she picks at the knots, "you're getting a pair of jeans, and you're going to like it."
He'll also be getting one or five cups of Wendy's patented crema de vie and plenty of encouragement to loosen up, but he can find that out on Christmas Eve.
The Middleman ignores that comment as his wrists get freed entirely. "You know, Dubbie," he says, "you're doing exceptionally well. It may be time for me to think about retirement."
Wendy freezes. "Oh, God. Don't even joke about that. Now I'm going to have nightmares about that filenado."
The Middleman frowns for a moment, and then tries, "A tornado made of paperwork?"
"You got it," says Wendy, helping him up. "Nah. No thanks. I'm good as is."
He smiles at her again, and if this time it does come off as a little condescending, it's also a lot proud, so Wendy can deal with it. "Yes," he says. "You are good."