“Thank you so much for coming,” said Amanda’s friend; a tall, thin woman with dark bags under her eyes.
“Not a problem,” replied Amanda. She, Rob, and Miya spread out across the lab. Miya cast a curious glance at several whiteboards on the wall, completely covered with different cross-sections of a brain along with dense notes scrawled in any spare space. “I’m sorry I couldn’t make it to your party last month.”
“It’s alright, I know you’re busy. And it was boring anyways.” She turned to Miya and Rob and extended a hand, saying, “Sorry, I didn’t mean to ignore you. My name is Sarah.”
“Miya.” They each shook her hand in turn.
“You’re friends of Amanda?” asked Sarah.
“Here to help,” said Rob. “We just know what you’ve told her.”
Sarah turned to Amanda, concern flickering on her face. “Didn’t you get a job with the MHU? I thought they might-”
Amanda cut her off with a shake of her head. “Me and another guy were fired.” Thanks for the vote of confidence.
“Oh no, what happened?”
“Office politics. Don’t worry, nothing illegal.” Miya fought to keep her face neutral. That’s one way to put it. “You needed my help?”
“Yes. I’m worried someone or something is after my research,” said Sarah. She walked over to a desk in the center of the room and stuffed a stack of manila folders from it into her backpack. Behind her, a computer monitor flickered as it powered down.
“Don’t this place got it its own security?” asked Rob. The massive college campus they’d gone through to get to the lab seemed to stretch on forever. I bet every one of these buildings is named after an old dead white dude. Provided nothing had gone horribly wrong, Olivia and Ben should have been moving around on the rooftops, keeping an eye out for anything suspicious.
“Campus security is worthless. They can watch monitors and call the actual police if something goes wrong. They’re not really equipped for actually stopping serious people.”
“Stopping who, exactly?” asked Amanda.
“About a week ago, some people came by, asking me a lot of questions about my research. They were spooky, very spooky. They said they were with the NSA, but I’ve been in talks with other parts of the DoD and their questions were far different.”
“Whoa, hold up. What do those acronyms mean?” asked Miya. Yes, apparently I’m an idiot who doesn’t know how to techie. Fuck you guys.
“National Security Agency, Department of Defense,” rattled off Rob. “They didn’t happen to be wearin’ grey suits, did they?”
“No, just normal clothes. Why?”
“We know some spooky people in grey suits. Could still be them,” replied Rob. I thought they were after Overlord. Although, come to think of it, now that Overlord is dead, what are they doing with their lives?
“What is all this stuff, anyways?” asked Miya. “Why would they want this?” She gestured to a random machine, which she might have mistaken for an ugly microwave had it been half the size.
“I research the human brain,” said Sarah simply. Not going to elaborate? OK, fine.
“Your point?” asked Miya.
“My point is that I’ve been asked to make weapons that can turn a person’s brain, their physical brain, to soup through a lead wall a foot thick. This is incredibly dangerous in the wrong hands,” said Sarah.
“Wait, do you still have that?” asked Amanda. What do you mean still? That exists? That’s terrifying.
Sarah’s eyes glanced to the side for a moment before she caught herself. “And even beyond that, if someone steals this and patents it first, my sponsors are out millions. They’ll want my head on a spike after that. This could just be nothing, I could have just misread the situation, but it is always better to be safe than sorry. I can compensate you all for you time, don’t worry.”
Millions? You’re in charge of millions? “Wait, a random grad student like you has that kind of money just lying around?” asked Miya. Damn it, I want to be a techie now.
She braced herself to get blown off by Amanda or Sarah, but Rob said, “Techie research ain’t like normal research. You get a massive fuckin’ budget, but the people in charge are super strict.”
“Yeah, paying you guys under the table won’t make a dent in my budget. I’ve got machines here that are worth more than three buildings on this campus put together. You’re an engineer as well?” she asked Rob.
“Yep. Nothin’ too fancy.”
“I’m surprised my little normal brain hasn’t exploded yet, being in the same room as you three,” commented Miya.
That at least got a chuckle out of them, though Sarah said, “If you brain explodes in here that would be because of…” Rob and Miya stared at her, smiles vanishing. “Never mind, don’t worry about it. This all is probably nothing. Hopefully it’s nothing. But I need to leave for the next three days and beg for more funding.”
“They’re not even coming out here to see your work?” asked Amanda.
“No. It’s going to be a hard sell. They’re really not happy about the no weapons thing,” said Sarah.
“But you’re a techie, right? Who are they going to replace you with?” asked Miya. It’s not as though anyone else can make a brain melting thing. They’d be using it if they could.
“It doesn’t matter how unique and special I am, it matters what work I produce. I’ve made a couple mistakes, and I haven’t been going as fast as they want. But that’s my problem, not yours,” she replied, a slight blush rising to her cheeks.
The moment after she zipped up her bag, her eyes widened in alarm and she rushed over to a cabinet on the far side of the room. She yanked open a drawer and began rifling through what sounded like papers within. Miya and the others exchanged confused glances.
“Is everything OK?” asked Amanda.
“No. Maybe. Yes!” replied Sarah, face buried in the drawer. She stood up with a small notebook in hand. “Almost forgot about this.”
“OK,” said Amanda with a nod. Yeah, I’m not sure what else you could say to that. “So, is there any rules or guidelines we need to know about here?”
“Nothing beyond the obvious. Do whatever you need to do. I’ll give you a full layout, of where everything is once I get to the airport, just don’t unplug this,” said Sarah, tapping her hand on a silver monolith twice Miya’s height as she passed. “I’ve got a long term project in there. Other than that, everything is shut down for while I’m away.”
“We’ll try not to break anythin’,” said Rob.
“I appreciate it. I’ll see you all in a couple days. Thank you so much.”
Miya sat on an empty desk, legs swinging beneath her, as Amanda threaded wires to her laptop beside her. Across the room, Rob leaned back in an office chair, napping. “So what are you doing?” she asked. We’ve been sitting here for a couple hours now. It’s past dinner time. Colleges have to have some good bars nearby.
“I am putting little surveillance devices in key spots.”
“How do you know they’re key?”
“Because I said so,” replied Amanda. Yeah, OK, I’m an idiot. Whatever. “This way we don’t all need to be sitting in an empty room for three days. I figure just one of us can cover it.”
“You don’t think there’s any real threat?”
“Nope,” said Amanda. “I love Sarah, but she’s a mess at the best of times. If someone wanted her research stolen, they would have done it by now. I’m sorry I dragged you guys out here on something so vague.”
“No problem,” called out Rob, eyes still closed. “Always wanted to see a real techie lab, not just a workshop.”
“Is it everything you hoped for?” Aw, look at you two nerds nerding out. Nerds.
“Nope. No idea what any of this shit is,” he replied. Miya nodded in agreement and looked around. One desk was covered entirely in stacks of graphs, with portions circled in red marker with no rhyme or reason that she could make out. Several empty glass flasks with hard water stains on their sides sat beneath a fume hood in the wall.
“Why are you even bothering with that, then?” asked Miya.
“Because she’s my friend and I’m not going to cheat her. I’ll do the best I can, even if I doubt anything will happen.”
Just as she finished speaking, there was a knock at the door. That doesn’t sound like Ben, he would have just let himself in. Rob apparently had the same thought. They exchanged glances, Rob leaning forward and getting out of his chair as Amanda climbed out from under the desk.
Two men in cheap, dark suits stood in the doorway. Despite one being black and the other white, they could have been siblings. Both maintained a half smile that didn’t reach their eyes, and stood with their hands clasped in front of them. They strode in before Rob could ask them anything, the white one taking a position by the door while the other stood between the three of them.
“Who are you?” asked Amanda.
“Excuse us, but is a Miss Sarah here?” asked the white man. Miya glanced between the two of them. Their long faces looked remarkably similar in structure, both with high cheekbones and thin chins.
“Who’s askin’?” said Rob.
The black man blinked and said, “We are.”
“No shit, who are you?” barked Miya.
“It doesn’t matter,” said Amanda. “We’re going to have to ask you two to leave.”
“Excuse us,” said the white man. “We are here to propose a simple business proposition to Miss Sarah. If you could please contact her, we assure you it will be worth her time. We at the NSA have been following her work closely for some time now. We are hoping that she has changed her mind since the last time we have visited her. This is a great opportunity for her to serve her country.”
Miya’s attention snapped to the black man, who’d drifted over towards a desk towards the center of the room “She’s not interested,” said Amanda, politely but firmly. “Please leave.”
The men nodded simultaneously. “Very well. We apologize for any inconvenience we may have caused.” Aren’t you two polite? Overly, overly polite.
Rob met them with a pointed gaze, closing the door behind them the moment they were out. Amanda returned to her laptop after a moment.
“That was weird, right?” asked Rob.
“Yeah, very,” replied Miya.
“We’ve got a problem,” called out Amanda. On the screen of her laptop, Miya could make out the black man grabbing something off the desk while no one was looking. “The black guy took something while the white guy was giving his little speech.”
Fuck. They rushed out of the lab and after the men, Rob leading the way. Bringing up the rear, Amanda pulled out her phone and called Ben and Olivia. “Two men, one black, one white, in dark suits. They took something, stop them.”
They burst out onto the ground floor and rushed for the nearest exit. Outside, the two men strode across a grassy field to a nearby parking lot. Too far.
Just before the men reached the parking lot, Olivia landed in front of them, doing her best looming monster impression. In the middle of the summer on a Tuesday night, there was thankfully no one else around on campus to complicate matters. The men stopped in their tracks, turning to face Miya’s group charging after them. To the side, Ben teleported over.
“Excuse us. There seems to be some sort of mistake,” said the white man once Miya’s group had caught up.
Olivia sniffed. She reached over and pulled his suit jacket open, showing the corner of a folded sheet of paper. Ben teleported over and grabbed the paper from the man’s jacket.
“You know this is theft. We could have you arrested for this,” said Amanda.
“Oh, I doubt it,” said the black man with a glance towards Olivia. He’s right. I don’t want to spend time in a jail cell, and I don’t think Olivia does either.
“Get outta here,” growled Rob.
The two men nodded, smiles never wavering. Simultaneously, they climbed into their car and drove off. Miya’s group kept an eye on them the whole time.
“Let’s get back inside and regroup,” said Amanda, once the car vanished from view. Together, all five of them hurried back, more for Olivia’s sake than anything else.
“Jesus Christ, Sarah wasn’t joking,” said Miya, once they reached the lab. “There were actually people after her shit.” Thank god we got it back. We would have looked like morons otherwise.
“Yeah, shit,” said Rob. “I thought this would’a been super easy. Those guys were pretty clumsy.”
“Something smells off,” said Olivia, who’d frozen just beyond the door with a distant look on her face. The conversation ground to a halt. “Something else was here while we were gone.”
“Shit,” growled Amanda. She leaned over her laptop and checked the handful of cameras she’d set up. “Nothing. We leave, then there’s nothing on here until we get back.
“Wait,” said Olivia, hovering over her shoulder and examining the replay. “Is this, um, current?”
“Yes, it’s live. Why?”
“That drawer,” said Olivia, tapping the tip of her claw on the screen. “It’s moved a tiny bit, but not on the camera.”
They whirled around, taking a look at the drawer Olivia had pointed out, the same one Sarah had frantically searched through just before leaving. Sure enough, the drawer was opened by the bares fraction of an inch, though on camera it appeared fully sealed.
“They were looking for that notebook she took,” said Amanda.
“What if they were lookin’ for somethin’ else?” asked Ben.
Amanda’s eyes widened. “What’s the worst thing they could have taken?” she murmured to herself.
“What was that?” asked Rob.
Rather than responding, Amanda rushed over to a corner of the room. Judging by a few pictures of Sarah, this was her personal desk. Amanda knelt down and tore aside a fake panel on the bottom, revealing a small black safe. Her fingers flew over the tumblers. With a few clicks, she opened it.
“Oh no,” she muttered. The worst possible thing they could have taken…
“It’s the brain melting thing, isn’t it?” asked Miya.
“Of course it’s the brain melting thing. It’s the worst possible thing that could happen, why would it be anything besides the brain melting thing?” hissed Amanda, resting her head against the side of the desk. Fuck.
“Brain meltin’? The fuck is that?” asked Ben.
“We were just tinkering once, when we were roommates together. I don’t even remember what we started working on, but eventually it led to this. We came up with a simple way to completely wreck a human brain, regardless of what was between the brain and the source. It’s a death ray, more or less. When we realized exactly what we’d made, put the only copy of the design we had on a hard drive and swore to never make it. She decided to keep it in case she could modify it to be less horrifying.” Amanda jabbed her finger at the empty safe. “That hard drive is gone.”
“Could be worse. Whoever these fuckers are, they could have an actual workin’ death ray,” said Rob. Hang on, there’s still a lot of questions that need answering here.
“That is true.” Amanda took a deep breath to collect herself. “We can fix this. Olivia, can you track them?” asked Amanda.
She nodded. “I think so. They don’t smell like anything else.”
“Alright,” said Ben with a grin. “Let’s get this brain meltin’ ray gun thing back.”