Hardison held his phone up overhead, blinked in its light, and looked around. "Seriously? Damn, I did not pay enough for this baby."
Nate looked around -- in front, behind, up, down -- and said mildly, "I didn't put enough Irish in this coffee, you mean." He took another sip from his mug, ceramic firmly in hand if more empty than he liked, and asked, "Hardison?"
Hardison was still bouncing back and forth, checking out the walls, floor and ceiling, although Nate had no idea why he was bothering.
They were in a maze of twisty passages, all alike.
! @ #
The security here was really, surprisingly good. Claudia had finally had to resort to Casanova's skeleton key just to get the locks undone. (If Artie found out she'd needed it, she was totally admitting that Leena shoved it into her purse and said take it.) Even with that, Claudia still didn't dare open the door until she managed to hack into the alarm system. That was taking some of her best work and she wasn't done yet.
Now if her damn Farnsworth would quit buzzing, she'd be able to get somewhere -- like, oh, inside.... Claudia flipped it opened one-handed, still typing with the other. "Busy here."
"Yes, well, hurry." Artie's eyebrows looked even wilder than usual in the curved lens of the Farnsworth. "We might have a situation."
"Working as fast as I can. You wouldn't believe what they... never mind. Look. How bad is 'hurry'?" Claudia kept typing. "Because honestly? There are at least two geniuses behind this security system, and they actually worked together. Which I have to say, I thought was totally illegal if not immoral and--"
"Claudia. It's bad and it's getting worse," Artie cut in, sounding much more worried than usual.
She looked up from her keyboard and winced. "You worried levels of emergency, got it. Artie? Remind me. Did you panic about HG trying to destroy the planet?"
"God, yes. Worse than about you calling my father. This isn't that bad yet, but MIT and Vassar are both shutting down classes for lack of students and faculty, Claudia. That's already all over the Web and it's not our biggest problem. So. Hurry."
His image vanished and Claudia set the Farnsworth where she could see while typing faster. She muttered quietly, "Hurrying, honest."
$ % ^
Eliot was guarding one side of the group, Parker was watching the other direction, and Hardison was tapping quickly on his phone. Nate was juggling the keys and food packet they'd found on the ground. (Hardison had beamed when he first saw the keys... and then he'd gotten worried.)
Sophie gave her phone a betrayed look but kept it in light mode. "There's no signal. We're in the middle of Boston, how can we not have phone signal?"
"We were in Nate's place, Sophie, how can we be in a cave system?" Eliot shot back. "What'd you do, Hardison?"
Parker had her taser in one hand and was free-climbing up the wall for fun. "He turned on a new computer. Well, an old computer, but new to him."
"I got my hands on a classic mainframe that they were just gonna junk -- not that y'all care 'bout geek history, although damn, this is Grandmama Geek history, be proud! It's got one of the early -- well, okay, not early-early, 'cause they rewrote it for mainframes, then ported it over from FORTRAN to C, which is like going from dinosaurs to early model sharks, let me tell you, then-- Hell. Y'all don't know FORTRAN from FourSquare."
Nate said patiently, "No, and this probably isn't the time for the lecture, either, Hardison. What does an old computer have to do with us being in a cave system? And how much trouble are we in?"
"Well, the game is supposed to take place in a cave system -- man based it off of Mammoth Caves, they say you can actually use playtime to help you not get lost in there but I never tried it -- and how much trouble depends on which version it is." Hardison looked at Eliot. "I think we should be okay, but man, don't go trying to hit the ogre, okay? Or the cyclops, or the transparent blob. Oh, and if you see a dwarf, be prepared to duck. He likes throwing his axe."
"The whats?" Eliot stared at him. "I thought you said we should be okay?"
"Well, we should." Hardison frowned. "If what they gave me is really what it said it was. Program name looked right, and the size did...." Hardison still looked worried. "Ought to be all right, but one phone in flashlight mode at all times, people, and give me five minutes of quiet to think and make sure I remember how to get us all out, a'right?"
Nate glanced between Parker who was climbing up the other side of the wall and Eliot who was giving the darkness beyond their phones suspicious looks... while taking off his denim shirt. Nate didn't ask. "Fine, five minutes -- after you tell us what might be the problem with the flashlights."
"It's not the flashlights, Nate, it's the dark. If the lights go out and this is the wrong game, we get eaten by a grue. I don't know what that really involves -- because this is not a game people usually land in -- but I do not want us to find out up close and personal, you get me?"
Eliot just sighed, resigned, and started cutting up his shirt. Sophie gave him a questioning look and got an answer of, "Braided cloth burns slower."
& * (
Claudia swiped hair out of her face, spat a strand out of her mouth, and snapped the Farnsworth open while her laptop hacked the laptop she'd attached it to. "Busy, busy, bus-- Oh, thank God, Mykes, please tell me you know what he bought besides the mainframe?"
Myka gave her a startled look, then said, "No, but I can be there in fifteen minutes, maybe twenty with Boston traffic, and I brought your time-viewer?"
Claudia exhaled in relief. "Please get here. Please. And bring coffee? Mocha latte, extra shots, extra whipped cream?"
"Really bad one, right. On my way now, and I'll get you your caffeine."
Mykes in professional mode was almost a security blanket, Claudia was starting to think. Her hand lifted, the signal that she was about to cut connection, so Claudia asked hastily, "No, wait, what'd you call about?"
"Nothing that matters as much as getting our favorite tech genius her coffee," Myka promised. "You worry about your end, I'll get this one."
"Oh, God," Claudia groaned. "More people have disappeared? What now, the Pentagon?"
Myka just said, "On the way with caffeine," and closed the connection.
Claudia stared at her reflection in the glass, closed her mouth over the unvoiced 'oh shit,' and went back to work. A little faster.
) ! @
Parker looked at Hardison, but he had the expression he got on the really tricky, high pressure jobs. Eliot was busy on guard duty and worrying too much -- she couldn't hear anything yet so neither could he.
It wasn't the 'right now' voice, so it didn't disturb him. He just put a hand up, headed them right at the next turn, and then said, "Yeah?"
"I need a boost." He blinked a couple times, so Parker kept explaining the way Sophie told her she should when they were confused. "You're tallest."
"Okay...? It's just a ceiling. Well. Cave roof." Hardison frowned. "Or code, or virtual reality--"
"A boost," Parker insisted. "It doesn't sound right. And mazes should be studied from above."
"We ain't got an... Ah, what the hell." Hardison moved over to the wall and braced a leg for her.
Parker beamed at him and bounced up from thigh to shoulder to the wall just like they'd practiced, feeling for holds as she went.
And clawed through.
# $ %
Claudia looked up from her keyboard, already starting to say something about, "Oh, great, you're... not coffee. Hey, don't shoot."
The stranger had landed on the floor on one hand and foot and come up fast, taser in her free hand. "What'd you do?"
It was not a friendly question and Claudia hated being on the sparky end of a taser. "Um, good guy here. Well, okay, good gal here, but trying to fix this. Do you know the guy who did the totally rad programming on this baby?" She indicated the laptop that was giving her serious coveting fits.
"You talk too... oh. Age of the geek?" she asked, half a question and half a challenge.
Claudia nodded enthusiastically and started to raise a hand for a fist bump, but settled down again when the taser twitched. "Geek power, sister. Seriously. Do you know him?"
Claudia winced -- now that she'd stopped her back and shoulders were telling her she'd been hunched over locks and keyboards all morning. "Um, can I stretch out at least? Man. I am too young to have to say that. Look. The guy who owns this laptop has it linked into a mainframe -- totally amazing code, great interface, I'll just shut up about that now... Anyway, look. If you can get me to the mainframe, I can stop whatever program is running that made you guys go... were you in a dungeon? Well, caves, really, more like tunnels...."
"A maze of twisty passages all alike. Not that they were, they echoed individually, but I warned the others when we were doubling back." She nodded finally. "If you're just saying that to get in his equipment, I get to shoot you."
Claudia blinked. "You could tell the passages apart by sound? Okay, color me completely impressed. And I'd rather not get shot. Honest. Get me to the mainframe and I think I can fix this." She started disconnecting her laptop and stuffing it in her bag. "Um, is there something I can call you other than 'hey, you?' I mean, I'm good with hey, you, but I so do not want to get tasered today. I haven't even had the extra espresso goodness Mykes promised me, and--"
"Parker." Parker said it with a sharp motion of her chin and Claudia grinned -- until the door opened and Myka was standing there with Claudia's coffee in hand and the other trying to reach for her Tesla.
"Whoa, whoa there, Mykes! No shooting! No setting off shooting!" Claudia quickly added, "No frying my laptop before I fix this, Parker!"
"Fix this?" Myka sounded relieved, but she still had her Tesla pointed at Parker. "Okay... Claude? You okay?"
"Yup. We have a 'let's fix this' truce going on and please tell me that has four shots of espresso because I have to figure out which version of the game they're in, but I know what's wrong, I know how to fix it, and she knows where I have to fix it, so let's go, and... you two can shoot each other later. Okay?"
Parker considered that. "Only if you don't bring them back. But if we have to go somewhere else, I need to leave them a note here." She just looked at Myka and then said, "And both of you have to be blindfolded on the way to the mainframe."
"Absolutely not." Myka had that flat, agent thing going on, so Claudia spoke fast.
"Because he won't like it that I took you there. He'll like it less if you know where it is. We don't like agents."
Claudia blinked, then said cautiously, "Okay, then. Um. Myka? How bad?"
"Really, really bad." Myka looked at the blonde then said, carefully, "Look. Yes, I'm a Secret Service agent, but I'm really here just to do this one job. Short of you having... I don't know, plates and a press to counterfeit US currency? I'm really, really not going to care."
"Then you can put up with blindfolds." Parker shrugged. "He said we were halfway there anyway. They'll get out without you."
Parker wasn't relaxed enough for that to be true, but Claudia was not taking away someone else's team- or partner-related teddy bear. So she slung her bag on her shoulder and said, "Time's wasting. Can I at least have my coffee while you're blindfolding us?"
^ & *
Myka was muttering about, "Seriously, you agreed to this?" The comments probably had a lot to do with Parker taking off Claudia's blindfold first.
Claudia stared for a moment, then said, "Right, right, wow later--" Her Farnsworth buzzed again, and Claudia repeated, "Cellphone. It can wait."
Parker nodded. "Good. Get them out." She pointed. "That's the new one. Well. New to him one. It's pretty old."
Claudia already had gloves on, but she checked them carefully in the light to make sure there were no rips. Myka pulled on a pair, too, asking, "How do you want to do this?"
Claudia was already pulling out the keyboard and checking a few things. "Let me see what he input last.... Right, there's where his system linked in. I have to shut that down after... That's how he's on the 'Net, Myka, which is probably how everyone else is getting lost, too, and this is...." Claudia looked up and winced. "Yeah. This is the paydirt. Hey, look, you can see the moth's after-image. And it's still fluttering. Ew."
She bounced back in a second, gleeful about getting to work on this mainframe even once.... "Admiral Grace, ma'am, you did amazing work!" Claudia hopped out of the chair, almost used to Parker's taser following her everywhere. "Okay. One more question and we can get everybody out. Where would your friend have stored a stack of computer cards? This long, this wide, stack probably..." Claudia considered, muttered, "Fourteen hundred lines of code... call it this high."
Parker pointed with her free hand. "Right there, in the hopper."
Myka sighed in relief. "Right. I'll get the bag out."
"What bag?" Parker was looking at them suspiciously again. "You're not stealing from us."
"Containment bag. It'll stop the program from trapping people." Claudia pointed out reasonably, "And we kinda have to take the cards, and the mainframe, so this doesn't happen again. We've got a way to store it, you don't."
"You can bag it. But you have to get permission to take it." Without looking over, Parker added, "Bag only or I'll taser you."
The cards crackled against her gloves when Claudia picked them up, which was reassuring because if they hadn't been the rest of the problem, she wasn't sure how she was going to fix all of it, short of completely hosing down the mainframe in purple goo and they didn't have that much of it with them....
"Focus, Claudia, focus," she muttered and dropped the cards into the containment bag.
The purple explosion that caused was really impressive.
( ) ~
"Right, so then I just shut it down at the mainframe--"
"Seriously. Alternate reality in a '60s mainframe?" Alec -- he hadn't given a last name; none of them had except Parker who hadn't given a first name, and Myka wasn't sure she thought any of the names were really theirs -- was talking point and counterpoint with Claudia, beat for beat, sarcasm for skepticism for geek glee at strange and, to Myka, inappropriate intervals.
"Hello, '60s?" Claudia snorted and thumped her mug down; empty, fortunately. Probably decaf, too, from the look 'Alec's' team had been giving them. "LSD, Timothy Leary, Surrealism, do not start me on what I think of the Dada-ists and really don't start me on Man Ray--"
Myka waved at the balcony and made a phone motion when Sophie and Claudia glanced over almost simultaneously. Sophie looked skeptical but went back to listening to Eliot gleefully discussing the fight that had left him with a too-rapidly fading black eye. (The split lip had already healed, as had the cuts over his knuckles. His shirt was never going to be the same, Myka suspected.)
Artie answered immediately. "What took so long?"
"Outside involvement," Myka said quietly. "And I had to move the cameras on their balcony." She sighed. "Is everyone...?"
"Returned, no deaths, some are still unconscious. The Pentagon's not admitting anything, and MIT is letting it be known as a prank. The purple 'aurora borealis' over Boston is getting scientific attention, but that's all right." Artie waved it all off. "Good enough. Are you two okay?"
"We're fine. No one got Tasered -- please don't ask, I'll tell you later -- and we have one of the artifacts. Claudia's arguing him out of the other. She's winning, so I'm leaving her to it. Something about she saved them, so her geek-fu is stronger than his. His... partners? Teammates? Are laughing about it. I think they're going to move it to a truck for us, rather than let us back in his apartment--"
"Move it for us?" Artie bristled. "We're US Agents, who do they think... Myka? Who bought it?"
"I think they're thieves, Artie. Or... something illegal." Myka twisted a curl around one finger, then let it go and hand-waved the whole thing off. "But you know, they're not counterfeiting and they're giving us the artifacts so I'm... leaving it alone."
To her surprise, Artie smiled at that. "Good for you. Tell Claudia to cut back on the caffeine and not to call me until she gets some sleep."
Myka smiled. "I'm cutting back on the caffeine until I get some sleep. Right. Full report... tomorrow, or when we get in. Probably driving a moving truck, damn it. I'll email you our hotel information once we have a room."
Artie just smiled. "Yeah, well, just this once -- get a good room. You two deserve it. Nice work. Tell Claudia I said that, too."
Myka smiled back at him, tired but accomplished. "A good room, huh? Jacuzzi tub, here I come. And I'll tell her. Thanks, Artie."
Myka hung up after he did, and tucked her Farnsworth away, then reset their cameras for them because it was only polite. And stood there, watching Claudia and 'Alec' bat geek terms back and forth, and the other team patch each other up... and smiled, and wandered in to make sure Claudia didn't need patching.
~~~ finis ~~~
Comments, Commentary, Miscellanea:
Right, notes. Boy, does this one need them.
First, the characters: Claudia, Myka, and Artie are all from Warehouse 13, a show in which items owned by vivid personalities can develop odd and sometimes dangerous talents. Warehouse 13 is where such items are safely stored away from the public. It's a great show on SyFy. A Tesla is effectively an electric stun gun predating a Taser and not requiring wires; a Farnsworth is an early video telephone, with a grating buzzer. (Yes, Artie's eyebrows require their own mention. Trust me on this. Or the amazing actor who plays him, Saul Rubinek.)
The Leverage characters are crooks who've decided they like doing good things for people in their own less-than-legal ways: Parker is an amazing thief, Hardison is a world-class hacker (and major geek), Eliot is their hitter and retrieval expert, i.e., the ass-kicker and bodyguard, Sophie is a con artist extraordinaire, and Nate is their mastermind. (Nate also drinks a lot; there was probably plenty of Irish whisky in that coffee.) On TNT, also an amazing show and well worth watching.
On to story notes!
Hardison bought (at auction) a mainframe used by USNR Rear Admiral Grace Hopper, who is just amazing in so many ways. Go, read up on this lady. The mainframe in question is the probable source of the word 'debugging' after she had to get a fried moth out of the circuits. The program he ran is Colossal Cave Adventures, which had many versions eventually, across many languages, and inspired Zork, Zork II, and Zork III (the source of the grues worries)*.
Yes, Colossal Caves was originally based on Mammoth Caves and is said to be helpful in navigating the caves. I haven't tried it and would strongly recommend listening to the guides there instead. And Colossal Caves is the original source of the phrase, "A maze of twisty passages, all alike," which is what set this story off, so hey, had to be done.
The mainframe was connecting across the internet with Hardison's laptop and he'd made the program available to certain sufficiently skilled others, so MIT (local to him) promptly started playing, and Vassar, Admiral Hopper's former employer, were both hard hit. The rest of the problem (i.e., yes, really, the Pentagon) comes from the fact that Will Crowther, who wrote Colossal Cave Adventures, worked with the original developers of ARPANET, a Department of Defense-financed early version of the Internet.
I have no idea what Eliot was fighting in there. Possibilities included a giant green snake, a bear, an axe-throwing dwarf, you get the idea. The Leverage team showed up in the tunnels instead of at the house because the system already had people at the house and it was never built to be a multi-player. Later arrivals kept showing up farther on and frequently without the necessary equipment, poor things!
Yes, Claudia has put together a machine that can show her, holographically, the last six hours of actions in a location. No, she didn't get to use it. But that doesn't mean Myka didn't have it and offer to bring it over. (Chekov's law of guns is great for drama, but real life doesn't always work that way and frequently, neither do my stories.)
Parker getting out? When one of the world's greatest thieves and one of the world's greatest hackers lean on an already overstressed programs, amazing things can happen. Also, please to note, Girl Saves Boy. I thought Parker should get to help and it just felt right.
Parker loves having a taser; enough said.
Yes, they're thieves, but they were helpful thieves, and badly inconvenienced by the artifacts that Hardison actually bought, legally and at high price. So Myka's staying out of it.
All that said, damn, I didn't get to cover Hardison ragging on Claudia about her steampunk gear, damn it, or Claudia ragging him about his security systems, and... oh, well. It was fun! I hope you enjoyed it too!