Sunday 24 May 2015

Aberrant - Dr Brown's Algorithm

Late January 2005, and Adam, Stef, Jean, Robert, Mark, Remy and I arrived at the Scottish base by different routes. Alastair and Jen greeted us. Rachel's absence - still on compassionate leave - was strongly felt, but I smiled as Stef and Alastair tried to hide their attraction: I'm not sure how far their relationship had progressed, but their relaxed manner showed they were closer than ever and it was lovely to see. I don't think they were trying to hide it, exactly, more that they didn't want it to be a distraction. But that little flush and smile when their eyes meet was heart-warming.

The discussion less so: Alastair was pretty much certain that the Hub had been breached. Unpleasant, because we don't know how this could be done without inside knowledge. A skeleton crew remained running basic service so it didn't appear abandonned, but for now it was not to be used for anything important or covert. Consider it compromised. Particularly frustrating to me because that means Benedict's lab is utterly off-limits.

We discussed the way the media had hidden Terragen's involvement in Chameleon's takedown, which moved us back to the nova's background, which Stef confirmed was completely vanished - to the extent that even his family had been moved from their last known address, within no one in the area admitting to ever having heard of them.

And from there, onto even darker topics: a nova family - mother, father and young child - had been killed in a car crash. We all agreed that it was unlikely a simple car crash would be enough to kill most novas, and there was some indication that a hit had been called. Worse, it seemed not to be isolated. Keeping Alastair's status secret became even more important - although since Chameleon, news reports often mentioned the 'miracle boy' who seemed to be in several places at once and saved many lives. His presence would inevitably soon be known more widely. Adam, meanwhile, was terrified for Nicky. She might show no signs of being a nova (and I'm still curious about that...), but that didn't mean the next wouldn't - and didn't mean whoever was behind this would believe Nicky was human. It was decided Adam should stay as much in the limelight as possible, to make it harder for a subtle hit on his family. Adam was pleased with the plan, doodling the starts of his next film project as we continued. It was assumed Steve and Holly would be ok because she's not my blood daughter - but I'll be extra-alert.

What concerned me the most was that Utopia might be involved in the hits, or someone was carefully framing them. Leaving Pax as our double-agent puts him in a danger I'm not entirely comfortable with, but his assistance has been invaluable to us and he was looking into this latest.

There's rumours of some initiative called 'The Directive' - some joint force between Utopia and the UN, or something. A bit shadowy; not many details. 

Then there was the continued discussions in the media regarding the 'guardian angel' who'd teleported people to safety during the the battle with Chameleon - an 'unknown nova who could be in several places at once'. Alastair didn't clarify whether he was just teleporting fast enough to give this impression or if he actually can split himself up. He and his mother knew, though, that he would eventually have to reveal himself to the public - the decision was when and how much. 

We left to run return to our normal lives, the Nova Initiative to remain in the shadows for the time being. For Adam, this was a short race back to California to deposit his new screen play with his favourite producer, interrupting a flustured Nic Cage. I was not surprised when Stef left with Alastair and Jen.

Holly was hoping to start at Cambridge the following September, and was actually quite amenable to the idea of my starting there as a lecturer at the same time. She'll be 16 by then; maybe not the youngest person there, but likely the youngest non-nova, and I think that was daunting for her. It wasn't difficult to persuade the university to let me lecture - I've had a lab on campus since they gave me my first degree. Holly would be in halls but Steve didn't want to be too far afield and works from home anyway, so the three of us went house-hunting. It was a more enjoyable experience than I'd anticipated, until I heard a mental scream from Adam, followed by silence. The estate agent kindly opened the sky light for me, and I flew to his Californian home... to find him lying on the floor of his lounge, with his dog Robin nosing him gently. Sam had arranged him in the recovery position and was sitting nearby with her mother and Nicky. By his limp hand, I could see the photo that had triggered his shock, so I came through the window to offer my congratulations. Sam confirmed she was about 8 weeks along.

Adam recovered, we set about arranging a celebratory meal with the team and families. He confirmed he hadn't told Sam the danger she and the children could be in - we agreed that was for the best - but she would be starring in the latest film along with himself and a reluctant Nicholas Cage. (As an aside, Nic Cage's role - 'fast food cashier 2' - is more interesting than it first appears: a look at the way novas have overwhelmed cinema at the expense of previously famous human stars, Nic Cage's character ultimately is pivotal in saving the day: he is, in many ways, the ultimate hero of the piece. With the human/nova political climate the way it is, this is a remarkably intelligent piece from Adam (as Phillip), beautifully hidden in the usual action sequences he writes (draws, performs and lives) so well.) Understandably, Sam was not prepared to put Nicky on the screen, but I could understand Adam's desire to have her there.

Back in the UK, we started making preparations to move into our Cambridge house. I was working towards my contribution to a conference in Boston, looking at the evolution of tech, bio-tech and quantum tech.

Holly and I were staying at the new house to acclimatise ourselves to Cambridge when the radio reported on a fire that was devastating a block of flats in London. Steve was visiting a client in Portsmouth and, with everything I'd learnt in Scotland, I was anxious about leaving Holly alone, but this was the kind of thing I deal with frequently, and a pretty bad case if it was on the national news. Holly opted to accompany me, so I flew off with her to help combat the flames. Another nova had arrived before me, someone I didn't recognise by their powers and couldn't see well enough to judge their features. They were throwing ice at the fire, and not doing a bad job. They'd already summoned a blizzard, so I focused on controlling the fire, trying to shrink it until between us the building was out - and encased in ice. The other nova flew off and I chased after but lost them, realising to keep following would put Holly in danger. Of course, the news teams were out so I tried to keep Holly hidden - no point people who want to hurt or control me learning who to threaten. The fire officer said it seemed that the fire had started within one flat - the gas had been left on and then the oven sparked, but there was no sign anyone had been in the flat at the time, and the building had caught more quickly than was normal. They were somewhere between confused and suspicious and said they'd keep me updated.

Don't tell Adam, but he really is incredible when it comes to film making. Not only is he a truly remarkable performer with an artistic eye, but he's very good at building the right team to create his vision and at getting the very most out of them. All the same, none of us could quite believe that he managed to get this one ready for premiere on 11th March. It was convenient for me, though, because my conference was that week. Stef, Holly and Steve wanted to come along too - for Stef, a combined interest in the subject and a return to her hometown. 

Adam came for my presentation on 10th March, which was followed by Dr Cassandra Brown (CEO of Viasoft), discussing her company's forays into artificial intelligence (she seemed pretty convincing, but beside me I could sense Stef becoming increasingly frustrated - "She's just wrong. Can't tell if it's deliberate to throw others off the scent, but she's wrong."). Both Adam and I noticed one man at the front who seemed out of place: Stef's irritation aside, everyone seemed pretty enraptured by the presentation, but this guy was bored. His focus was on Dr Brown, not her speech. I realised I hadn't seen him previously at the conference - Adam recognised him as Nakamura Yoshira, CEO of [Japanese tech company whose name I've forgotten]. He also realised he'd seen Nakamura and Brown together at a restaurant - the implication had been a business meeting but he'd suspected something more intimate. Lurking at the edge of a room was another person we'd not spotted before, presumably Nakamura's bodyguard. 

Dr Brown continued her presentation, carefully avoiding looking at the fidgiting man in front of her, and we weren't surprised when he left quickly after she finished. Adam threw his senses to chase after him but lost track so we nipped out to follow in person - Adam taking one possible route and I another. 

I heard voices coming from the room over the stage: Nakamura and Brown. Hid myself nearby and listened as he reminded her they were on a time limit and she did her best to reassure him it would be ready but that she did need more time - something he stated he could not give. I doubted Adam's assessment of their meeting now, thinking he was blackmailing her or bullying her on some covert project. Two people left - Nakamura and his bodayguard, but no sign of Dr Brown. I snuck in, and there was no sign she'd ever been there. I was very confused until Adam chimed in to say he'd seen her take a call as she got into her limo. Sometimes my ears are a little too sharp.

We returned to our seats but were too fidgity to enjoy the rest of the talks (I'm not sure how much Adam was enjoying them anyway). We wanted to know more about this project - the secrecy around it concerned us. Stef agreed to go through Viasoft's data to see if there were any clues, but we needed to get a bugging device into their server room first, so we snuck off and did that. Whilst at the offices, we established Dr Brown was out so snuck into her room and checked her files also. Nothing stood out, but her calendar showed her at a business dinner and we figured we had time to break into her house in case the files were there - it didn't sound like the project she was working on for Nakarmura was 'official'. 

Her house was in a nice part of the city. An impressive cast-iron gate marked the only entrance in the high wall (that we easily by-passed). The long drive led to a house with windows in the place of walls for the entrance lobby. It seemed a beautiful place to live - lots of open green space and, round the back, a large swimming pool. There were a few lights on, so Adam threw his vision inside and found Nakamura lying on a bed in one of the rooms, idly changing channel on the large TV inside. There was no sign of his bodyguard, but we assumed he was around and proceeded with caution. 

Given she works for Viasoft, we assumed Dr Brown's security was state of the art and were a little surprised we'd made it as far as we had. Adam went to pick the lock of the patio doors by the pool - a strike of lightning threw him backwards. I went to grab him and discovered I couldn't fly - realised I was cut off from all my quantum power. Panic threatened to rise and we ran for the wall - but it felt like running through treacle. As we struggled to get over the wall, the bodyguard appeared and told us to stop. We declined and dropped to the street behind, only to find him stood before us. Whatever it was that was blocking our power was still affecting us here, and he would not let us pass. I played on my low height and petite build to pretend to be a frustrated teenager, claiming we'd just wanted to swim (wouldn't do for Dr Lisa Moore and the famed actor/comic book creator Phillip Rogers to be arrested for B&E), but he wasn't going to budge and instead kept us in place whilst we waited for the authorities to arrive. He moved with supple grace that suggested he knew very well how to use the sword at his waist.

It was an unmarked car that came for us, and the two men were also not in uniform. I assumed they were undercover cops, but something made me anxious - maybe I was picking something up from Adam, who (mixed race and in America) was suddenly very obedient. I refused to leave with them without seeing their ID, so they tasered me into submission (being tasered hurts) and cuffed the pair of us with weird cuffs. As they drove us away, we saw Dr Brown return.

I often forgot Adam's past was less privileged that mine. I don't know the details - I trust him to tell me if he ever thinks I need to know - but I do know this isn't his first time in a police car. He talked me through what to expect, but the look in the older guy's eye as he instructed the younger one to tase me made me suspect we weren't going where Adam thought. As we left the city limits, I saw the same realisation dawn in Adam.

We were driven out into a surrounding woodland. When I saw them collect guns from the boot*, I refused to leave the car but they threatened to shoot Adam so I relented. Dragged my feet to try and create a followable trail, bitching and whining to try to hide what I was doing. Screamed mentally for Remy and Alastair, but wasn't sure anyone would hear - my power was still sapped, so maybe something was blocking all quantum around us.

I hate feeling this weak. Hate not being able to think. Don't ever leave me human.

As we'd realised, once we were deep enough into the forest they wanted us to kneel so they could shoot us. I threw myself as best I could toward the younger 'cop', clipped him with my shoulder and fell to the floor, but at least it put him off his aim. I heard the other fire his shotgun into Adam's shoulder. Redoubled my efforts to deal with the one by me, kicking and thrashing to prevent an easy shot. Adam's screams reassured me he was still alive, but I was struggling to deal with hearing my best friend in so much pain.

The handgun was levelled at me and at this range - just beyond kicking range - and without my quantum abilities, there was nothing I could do to protect myself as the muzzle flashed. 

The expected agony never hit, and not because I died too quickly. I saw the barrel of the gun tumble down and the bullet fly in a different direction.The elder cop looked round at the surprised noise the younger guy made - then up in horror as his entire arm fell from his body, taking the shotgun with it. The younger guy's throat split open and he choked and garbled as blood started to gush. I went to help him, but with my hands bound so tightly there was nothing I could do but watch his last breaths. The elder guy grabbed the handgun from his belt and raised it at Adam, and this time we saw the dark slash that removed his head.

I pulled myself to my knees, looking round for our strange saviour (the swordsman bodyguard, perhaps? He'd seemed unimpressed by the guys who'd taken us away. Were we bait?). No sign of anyone, so I shouted a quick 'thank you' and struggled over to Adam. As I moved, the link between my cuffs suddenly snapped free, enabling me to grab the jacket from one of the dead men to try to keep Adam from bleeding out. His shoulder was a mess, but I was relieved that it looked worse than it was.

Adam managed to sit up, and his cuffs were similarly split. He asked our saviour to show themselves, and the shadows coalesced into a human-shape. They spoke, recognising us for who we are (or at least, as Lisa/Phoenix and Philip/Hyperdrive) and explained it was the cuffs that were dampening our powers. To remove them, we'd need the key and the key was around Nakamura's neck. Not only that, but Dr Brown's project was an algorithm to accurately predict nova activity and eruption - very dangerous in the wrong hands, and they felt Nakamura's were certainly such. The algorithm needed destroying: would we help.

My mind raced. With the current political situation, we've been worrying about fledgling novas hiding and being in danger. Alastair has been making extensive use of the moon base (and the room Adam keeps calling 'cerebro' for some reason) to try to track them down, but it takes a lot of his energy and time and gives us the information after the fact. With this, it would be much easier for us to work to protect novas and their families, and help young novas come to terms with their changed situation. In our hands, the algorithm could be put to great use; could be intensely beneficial. Oh, but could we keep it safe?

Adam agreed to help and I stepped with him through the shadowy portal that led us to a warehouse with a campbed, battered desk and wooden chair. The shadowy figure continued, explaining Nakamura would only be killed if he resisted, but Dr Brown would have to die: she'd created the algorithm once and could do so again, even if we destroyed her years of data that were key to her work. I was less sure about killing, but figured if I could steal the data and save the woman, it wouldn't be a bad day's work.

As we talked, a tall man with a Japanese edge to his features entered with shopping bags: we found ourselves face to face with our saviour, who didn't miss a breath as the shadow dissipated and he continued talking. The bags turned out to contain a few extra first aid items and he swiftly cleaned and stitched Adam's shoulder. We could call him 'KG'.

As we drove back to Dr Brown's, he explained Nakamura's bodyguard calls himself Muramasa and believes himself to be the legendary swordmaster reborn. With our powers weakened, 'KG' would deal with him and we would destroy the algorithm and data. The key to our cuffs would be somewhere on Nakamura's person, but he had the ability to drain quantum from novas around him.

'KG' drove round the front as a distraction whilst we again attempted entry at the rear. This time, a window on the first floor had been left open, so we scrambled up the outside of the building to clamber through. The front of the house was engulfed in roiling shadows: an intense fight was going on, but we could make nothing out. We went to the room Nakamura had been in, to find him playing the piano whilst Dr Brown reclined on the bed, both naked. She was understandably upset and he surprisingly calm.

You'd think what I'd been through with my parents would have prepared me for how much some people hate novas, but her disgust shocked me. She wouldn't tell me the password to her computer or what the project was - I wanted her confirmation of what 'KG' had told us, because something seemed slightly off-kilter - and when I came nearer to try to offer comfort, she flinched and demanded I not touch her. 

The key to our cuffs was around Nakamura's neck, just as 'KG' had said. Removing the cuffs did nothing to alleviate our powerlessness, so Adam fitted them to Nakamura. He accepted this calmly, so I wasn't surprised when nothing changed. No doubt the technology in the cuffs had been developed using his template and with loopholes to protect him. That's how I'd have done it, were I so inclined.

We took turns to explore as the other guarded. Adam found a secret server room behind the wine cellar, and returned to swap with me, suspecting I'd be better at dealing with it. I was relieved: he didn't know my plan and I was scared he'd have just wiped it. A quick phonecall to Stef meant I could bypass the security and it did indeed seem to be what we'd been promised. I uploaded the data, grateful again to Initiate technology for giving me a phone capable of doing so. That done, I removed all the hard drives, physically damaging them as best I could but knowing a better job could be done once Adam regained his magnetic powers. 'KG' appeared before me - battered but triumphant - and destroyed the heavy bag. 

We went upstairs, and as he confronted Nakamura the off-kilter feeling I'd had made sense: he accused Nakamura of having his mother killed, of planning to kill Dr Brown once her purpose was served, and of no doubt repeating this pattern with other American women. As Nakamura stood to face his illegitimate son, the cuffs fell and clothes formed on his body. Dr Brown screamed and pulled the quilt closer around her - disgusted that she'd let such a monster touch her, disgusted that he was working against his filthy kind. As father and son - one in shadow and one in light - started to battle, I grabbed Dr Brown to pull her from the room. On the bedside table, in the instant before a beam of light destroyed it, I noticed a photo of her with a man cradling her and the baby she held.

She agreed to come with me as I tried to explain we were hoping to rescue her from the one who wanted to kill her for what she'd done, but she still wouldn't tell me the depth of it, nor why she'd done it. She dressed quickly and went to a safe, refusing to accept I could keep her safer than her bodyguards. As she withdrew a phone and started to dial, I slapped it from her and tried to drag her from the room. She wouldn't leave and I didn't want to hurt her or give her further reason to hate novas. I could feel my quantum starting to trickle back in and knew 'KG' had won. She was in greater danger but still wouldn't listen. A cloud of shadow breached the wall and pulled her away from me, leaving just a shoe. I regretted not being more forceful with her and dealing with the issues arising from that later, but with the return of my quantum could hear a shrill noise emanating from the discarded phone. It stopped, giving Adam and I just enough time to escape before the building went into lockdown.

We walked a surreptitious route back to our hotel. Adam was surprised to see Stef waiting for us - more so when he saw Alastair with her. We quickly discussed the algorithm - it had successfully and securely transferred to Stef - and I think Adam was unhappy with me for taking it. I don't like Adam thinking less of me, but the stakes here are so high. Anyway, Alastair felt that it could be run securely through the St John Enterprises servers: they were high traffic anyway, so no one was likely to notice an increase, and, whilst it was known we'd met Benedict and Jennifer St John and their infant son Alastair at those sorts of events where you meet such people, there was no traceable link between the Nova Initiative and St John Enterprises. 

Alastair explained the Dr Brown's husband and child had been killed by a nova - a nova who'd built up a cult of personality around themselves and who could manipulate people into doing cruel things to those of whom he disapproved. Her husband had been swept into the cult and started to break free. It was likely this nova was now dead, but that would be no comfort to Dr Brown. I just wish she could see that this was an outlier, that she can't judge all novas by that one. But, if she's still alive, I can't imagine 'KG' is making it any easier for her to trust us.

Adam went home to see his family and prepare for the premiere that was now later today, and I returned to my room to listen to Holly's snore. My head was full of Dr Brown's recriminations and I wanted to write to my parents and seek some form of reconciliation... but somehow the words wouldn't come.

*Just in case it's confusing to non-British readers, the boot referred to is the boot of the car, which I believe is called the 'trunk' in American English.

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