28 August 2013
It is customary to conduct any mission handoff that involves possible data breaches or spies out of office, to carefully control whose eyes see what. Q will duck out for a jaunt, which he does frequently enough that no one wonders at a change in routine, and meet whichever trustworthy agent M has chosen. It’s almost invariably 007, because he’s the one agent that both M and Q trust implicitly. They meet in various museums when a mission of this nature comes up – which is becoming all too common nowadays. It gives Q a chance to stretch his legs outside MI6, and Bond in turn appreciates any opportunity for spiteful wordplay.
They’ll bicker about art, have a few digs at the other’s age and presumed ignorance, and then part ways -- guns and gadgets exchanged safely away from the eyes of MI6. Bond goes along with his location choices, and Q does his best to make them at least cursorily related to the military. He made the mistake of choosing a small modern art gallery once, and it nearly ended with Bond’s defection to Russia.
Q’s choice for this outing is a traveling gallery of weapons and cultural artifacts from Feudal Japan. The exhibit has good buzz around it, so there’s bound to be enough people present to pass unnoticed. Q had carefully picked out the display for them to meet at from the museum’s website; he’s looking forward to exchanging this round of snide barbs in front of it.
Q pays the ‘suggested’ donation fee and collects his ticket. There is a bored looking security guard posted at the door and another one at a fairly good vantage point in the first room of the exhibit. The space is relatively small: two larger rooms that flow into each other and one smaller room where the main draws are. Q weaves past the young mother with two children too young for regular schooling yet, an old man more concerned with his mobile than anything else, and a tall, bruised teenage boy frowning unhappily at a painting of some sort of oni.
Q counts two more guards as he drifts from artifact to artifact, probably looking like a bored post-graduate student, until he gets to the meet point. Bond is waiting on him, because of course he is.
The smaller room is crowded with weapons –- various swords and daggers, a kama, a tekkan and a hachiwari paired together, a truly intimidating chigiriki, and a corner with Japanese Matchlock guns behind glass. The bench Bond and Q choose is adjacent to an open samurai display. The banner over it proclaims WORKING WEAPONS OF A PAST ERA. The plaques on the wall detail the differences between the weapons in blade length, curve, use, and cultural significance. It’s clear that the key pieces are the katana and shorter sword, the wakizashi, prominently positioned at the front.
The agent nods at the display. “Did you choose this particular room because you’ve decided to skip the gun and go back to basics?”
“While I have no doubt you would be suitably effective with any blade, I’m afraid you’ll have to make do with more modern weapons,” Q says. He reaches into his bag for the Walther PPK/S case, and that’s when things go, frankly, completely tits up.
Shots are fired from the first room of the exhibit, echoing loudly. It sounds like a M16 or an AR70/90, Q thinks as Bond grabs his arm and hauls him back towards the door marked ‘Employees Only’. A ski-masked gunman opens it from the other side before they reach it, leveling an AR70/90 at Q’s chest.
“Up against the wall,” he orders. Bond drops Q’s arm and raises his hands as if in surrender. He shifts his weight, no doubt measuring the distance he would have to travel to spring on their assailant and disarm him. A scream behind them pulls their attention. Bond grabs Q again and moves them so that their backs are to the partitioning wall -- and they can see the people being herded into the space by two other masked men with AR70/90 assault rifles. The only guard in the room is quickly relieved of his Taser and forced to join the civilians. The three other guards for the exhibit are missing, possibly dead.
They line everyone up next to Q and Bond, and Q desperately hopes that this isn’t the beginning of a mass execution.
Once all the civilians and one guard -- twenty-two in total, Q notes -- have been lined against the wall, the gunmen back out of reach, clearly waiting.
That’s when a fourth gunman drags the boy in. It’s the tall boy, the one who was standing in front of the oni painting. He’s not struggling, but his eyes are darting in between the gunman with an almost resigned recognition. Whatever this mess is, he’s a part of it.
Or perhaps, more accurately, the target of it, Q thinks when they put the boy on his knees facing the imprisoned museum goers and aim their weapons at him. Only one gunman has his weapon trained on the civilians; the other three are focused on the boy. Bond tenses, but Q places a quelling hand on his wrist. Bond cuts his gaze to focus on Q out of the corner of his eye, and Q gives the barest shake of his head. There are too many innocents here, too many people who will get shot if they act rashly. He and Bond have found themselves in the middle of a game they know nothing about -- a very dangerous place to be.
“Do you know how we found you?” one of the gunmen asks. American accent, bland in the way news broadcasters are taught to be. He’s got his assault rifle aimed squarely at the boy’s head, but the teenager barely seems to register it.
“Even incredibly stupid people get lucky,” the boy says dryly. His voice doesn’t shake, but his eyes are frantic.
The gunman taps the barrel of the AR70/90 against the boy’s temple, hitting the bruise spanning the left side of his face. “You’re just as much of a smartass as he said you’d be.”
Q frowns. This gunman, at least, is American, and so is the boy. This raises several immediate concerns, which include 1.) How did they get AR70/90s into the United Kingdom, and 2.) What kind of international clusterfuck have he and Bond just been dragged into?
The boy smiles without humor. “You clearly want to brag, so please, go ahead.”
That earns the boy a kick from one of the other gunmen, and he rolls with the blow. He rights himself slowly, as if in pain, but Q has a perfect view of his eyes. He’s measuring distances, Q realizes.
Q reflexively tightens his grip on Bond’s wrist, which he honestly hadn’t even noticed he was still holding. Bond stands still -- too still. He’s standing like a soldier about to strike, and they can’t have that, can’t have it give him away. Not that the gunman seem all that concerned with the crowd they’ve rounded up.
“Argent’s weak,” the first gunman sneers. “The whole line’s gone weak. Used to be that the Argents stood for something--”
“--Like burning children to death?” the boy interrupts. The second gunman moves to strike him again, and the boy holds up his hands and cringes away, scuffling back on his knees.
The first gunman spits. “They deserved to burn. They all do. If Argent weren’t so weak, he’d understand that.”
“God forbid he draw a moral line,” the kid snorts. His hands are clenching and unclenching.
“What would you know about morals?” The first gunman shakes his head. “You run around with them like you could possibly keep up. You’re weak in soul and body – and now we’re going to execute you as a traitor to the human race.”
“Weak in soul and body, huh?” the boy repeats. A strange expression flitters across the boy’s face as he twists and shuffles to face his attackers more fully. He almost looks puzzled, like something about what they’re saying doesn’t add up. He’s suspiciously close to the samurai sword display behind him.
“No skills, no powers, just a human sellout,” the third gunman says mockingly.
“You die here, Stilinski,” says the gunman who kicked the boy earlier. He steadies his aim and visibly prepares to fire, stepping closer. But Q’s eyes are drawn away, towards the intended victim – who is not a victim very long. Stilinski, the boy, is in motion. He reaches behind him and grasps the hilt of the shorter sword, the wakizashi. In one graceful arc, he pulls the wakizashi from its sheath, pushes to his feet, and swings.
The blade connects with the gunman’s hand. He doesn’t hesitate or pull back; he cuts all the way through, severing the man’s fingers, before drawing the hilt towards himself and stabbing out and up. The blade pierces straight through the gunman’s chest, killing him, and Stilinski doesn’t pause. He uses the motion to bear forward; the gunman’s body shields him from the wild shots the other men have finally started firing.
Q is distracted by the screams of the civilians. He shoves the woman beside him towards the exit; she doesn’t need any more encouragement to run. It breaks the spell that left everyone watching in horror. Half the civilians flee, scurrying away.
Stilinski uses the gunman’s body as a shield just long enough to get close to his next target. He pulls the wakizashi free and slashes at the gunman, drawing the sword up his torso and then across his neck. The arterial spray catches Stilinski in the face, but he doesn’t flinch or blink. Even trained killers have a flinch response to stimuli flying towards their eyes. His expression is utterly blank as he spins to dodge a cluster of poorly aimed bullets and guts the third gunman.
The remaining gunman, that first one with so much to say, scrambles backwards. He tries to train his gun on Stilinski properly, but the AR70/90 isn’t made for especially close combat, and he’s not nearly fast enough.
Stilinski lays into him a series of short rapid slashes that him leave stumbling, bleeding from the lacerations and overwhelming his ability to respond to the attacks. He tries to raise the assault rifle to block the short sword, but Stilinski wrenches it out of his grasp with a twist and turn of the wakizashi and then brings the hilt back with enough force to crush the man’s airway. Stilinski watches motionlessly as his assailant falls to the floor and slowly begins to die.
The whole slaughter -- for there is nothing else to call a fight so overmatched -- took only a few seconds. The police are probably still on their way or trying to organize themselves outside.
The boy exhales shakily. The wakizashi drops from his hand to the floor with a clang. Stilinski looks down and stares at his blood-splattered hands. The expression of pain that comes across his face rivals any interrogation footage Q has ever seen.
“Idiots,” Stilinski says softly. “Too stupid to know not to put me next to the fucking swords.”
Bond steps forward, drawing his attention. The boy took one look at the Walther Bond has somehow retrieved from Q’s rucksack during the confrontation and bolts out the ‘Employees Only’ door. Bond wavers for just a moment – he really should remain at the scene and make sure that Q is secure – but at Q’s shouted ‘GO!’, he follows after Stilinski at full speed.
This leaves Q alone in a room full of dead gunmen and a few cowering civilians when the Met bursts in.
After Bond turns up at MI6 headquarters embarrassingly empty handed and M is briefed on the situation, the initial mission is quickly reassigned to 006.
“Find out everything you can,” M orders, so Q sets to work in his private office. All three computer screens flicker as he hunts for what MI6 needs to make sense of this mess.
The cameras were taken out by the gunmen before Stilinski even arrived; the museum was too small and inexperienced to shut the place down with the problem was noticed, giving the gunmen plenty of time to block the exits and round up the civilians inside.
Q programs searches for anyone in the appropriate age range with the name ‘Stilinski,’ with further instructions to find known associates or commonalities. He includes possible spelling variations like Stilinsky and Stalinski. He can’t seem to find any CCTV footage of the boy approaching the museum, which is concerning. He’s forced to use the two sketches the artists in Department 4 compiled based on his and Bond’s descriptions to run a facial recognition program.
While that runs, Q catalogues what he knows based on his own observations and the field report from the Met officers who arrived at the scene:
- All four gunmen were white males in their early twenties to mid-thirties.
- They were all probably American, based on accents and the signs of a lifetime of heavy fluoride exposure.
- They were able to either a.) smuggle a marked quantity of AR70/90s into the country or b.) purchase said weapons from someone once already here.
- The second facial recognition program he had running had so far only identified one man, the talkative first one.
Terrence Neal, age 34. Warrant issued by the Polizia di Stato in northern Italy two and half weeks ago for his arrest for the suspected murder of three people in Savona and another in Pareto.
What the hell had MI6 just stumbled across?
Bond lets himself into Q’s office without knocking just as several of Q’s programs chimed in alert. “Report?”
“Impeccable timing as always, 007,” Q says. He makes a few adjustments and has the information he’s gathered show on the large screen mounted on the wall. Q transfers to a tablet and stands beside Bond as they survey it.
“It appears our mystery teenager arrived in the country two days ago,” Q says. He focuses on the appropriate document. “The passport he used to enter England is a fake, under the name Dmitri Bukharin.”
“Cute,” Bond says.
“We’ll leave the question of why you understood that reference for another time,” Q says dryly. He flicks through the electronic documents his search found. “There’s a hit for the name they called him in northern California. Let’s see, his real name is -- Good Lord, why would you name your child that?”
Bond tilts his head at the screen and squints. “It looks...Is that supposed to be Russian?”
“It’s deeply unsettling that you can’t tell,” Q says. “There’s a note in his school records that he goes by the name ‘Stiles.’” Q frowns. “Hm, he does have a passport under his own name. It’s only been used twice -- once while visiting relatives in Russia while his father enrolled in an alcohol treatment facility in 2004 after the death of his wife Claudia and once during a trip to Mexico in 2012. No legal run-ins either time. No indication of why he would come here or where he got that bruise.”
Q reads the other documents he found rapidly, trying to piece together some sort of coherent picture of what brought Stilinski to England.
“Hm,” Q says again. This medical file is...odd. Data is missing, notes of tests that don’t have corresponding results, incomplete sentences like they were digitally erased halfway through. A note that Stilinski was sent to a mental health facility for some time, but there’s no indication of how long he was there or what triggered his stay. It’s like the information has been corrupted, eaten away by a ghost. Q’s fingers fly over the keys, trying to find what caused it. There are no signs of a virus, nothing that would explain why the hospitals records are so damaged. No manual cause either -- no one sat at a workstation in the doctor’s office and deleted things.
He branches out and finds more suspicious gaps, everywhere -- the town’s various CCTV systems and surveillance networks, the hospital records, the police records. Data missing, video missing, records missing. A whole town slowly going digitally dark, with no indication that they were even aware. Q finds a website devoted to scanning local papers into digital format and traces back, looking at headlines.
“Murder, murder, arson, murder, and more missing persons than a small city should account for,” Q says. “A sharp rise in violent incidents starting in 2011, with,” he continues while opening what appears to be some sort of conspiracy website if the terrible font and black background is anything to go by, “one notable outlier from 2004, when an entire family died in what was believed at the time to be an electrical fire.”
Bond turns and raises an eyebrow.
“Obviously it wasn’t an accident,” Q says. “And that brings us to this piece of information: Katherine Argent was found, posthumously, to be guilty of the arson committed seven years prior. She and everyone involved in perpetrating it or covering it up was murdered before this information became public.”
“This sounds more like the sort of places I get sent to, rather than an idyllic, small American town,” Bond observes.
“None of this is even the bizarrest part,” Q says, standing. “There are always gaps in data streams and surveillance networks, but this is something different – Beacon Hills has a population of roughly a hundred thousand individuals, which typically means 500 terabytes of data from ordinary things like security cameras and mobiles and the like. A day . However, ever since early 2011, something has been corrupting, well. Everything. Choking it off. As of now, no surveillance data is coming out of Beacon Hills at all and no one has noticed. Even more worryingly, I can find no trace of what is doing it.”
“So whatever this is,” Bond says slowly, “it’s well beyond an unexpected sword prodigy having a run-in with some gunmen.”
“Yes,” Q says. “They were targeting Stilinski. And whatever reasons they have, it traces back to Beacon Hills. This is -- I don’t have words for how large whatever this must be. I’m betting that there are more than four poorly trained foot soldiers involved.”
“Highly financed, poorly trained foot soldiers,” Bond points out. “The going rate is roughly, oh, nine thousand euros at the moment for the AR 70/90? They had four, plus basic tactical gear. Honestly, our would-be execution squad would have had more luck with AK-47s.” He glances over at Q. “They’re fairly idiot proof.”
Q hears another chime and looks at what his seeker program has found now. “Oh hello,” he says to himself.
“What is it?” Bond asks.
“One of Stilinski’s former classmates has been living in London the past few years, a Jackson Whittemore.” Q puts the school photo he found on the large screen for Bond to see. “He could be why Stilinski came here. From these newspaper articles, they definitely had some sort of connection to each other.”
“It’s almost too much of a coincidence otherwise,” Bond says. “I’ll inform M that we should put him under surveillance, see if the boy shows up.”
Bond leaves without saying goodbye, as usual. Q barely notices. He’s too busy checking the data streams of London, watching for any telltale gaps or signs of corruption. Anything that could confirm the sneaking suspicion he has that whatever is unfolding in Beacon Hills, California is about to engulf London as well.