Brigandeers: Chapter 7: Cryptochrome

It’s nearly one o’clock by the time I crawl out of bed. So much for the eleven o’clock on the radio that I promised them.

I shuffle out to the kitchen to find the place empty, apart from Jacob. He is well set up on a bean bag, and playing some sort of shoot em up game on a tablet. He doesn’t even notice me, he’s so engrossed in his game.

Looks like we’ll be babysitting today. I don’t mind really, as Jacob isn’t a bad kid. It’s taken all of two weeks for him to fit right in here and learn to trust us all. He’s part of the family now, and it’s like he’s always been here.

As long as he’s fed and watered, and has plenty of books, toys and computer games to keep him happy, he’s generally no trouble at all. Occasionally his presence does mean we have to be careful about what movies we watch, but that’s not really a big deal.

To be honest, I don’t mind the kids cartoons he likes to watch – they’re better than most of the rubbish that’s on television these days.

As I fill the kettle and switch it on, I’m made dimly aware of loud, chainsaw-like snoring coming from John’s room. It sounds like he slept in even later than me.

Oh well. It’s Saturday morning . What else can they expect?, I muse. Further away and up over my head somewhere above, I can hear the muffled sound of a bedhead banging against a wall. I guess that means Ani and Cam are still here too. Some things never change about Ani.

I have no idea how everyone got out of the house as early as they did, especially considering that Marika was up as late as I was. She seemed to be in worse condition than me.

Maybe beer really is bad for you. Or maybe I just need to stop worrying and drink more of the stuff.

I make myself a cup of green tea, feeling virtuous. Then I turn on the stove top, and pop a skillet on and spray it.

A few minutes later, I’m sitting at the kitchen table, eating my eggs and relaxing to the sounds of Jacob’s game. It’s nice to have nobody here except the kid and me. It’s nice to be able to eat my breakfast without interruptions. I’m feeling all relaxed now, and very mellow.

All I need now is some sunshine on my back instead of the dim interior of our cellar flat. But then, we couldn’t be stealthy superheroes if we lived in the sunshine, could we?

Yeah, I could get used to this.

A few minutes later, the snoring stops. I hear footsteps down the corridor, and the bathroom door slams. Then a few minutes later, the toilet flushes, and the sink runs.

John is out of bed. He appears, bleary-eyed, in the kitchen, hanging on the frame of the doorway. Even when he’s sleepy and his hair is all messed up he still looks hot. Heck, I’d even cope with the snoring. I take a deep breath and act naturally.

“Good morning, John,” I say, trying to act cool.

“G’morning,” he replies. “Is the kettle still hot? I don’t suppose you made a cuppa for me?”

“No, you’ll have to flick it on again. And no, you were still asleep, you lazy bugger.” I’m casual as fuck, and impressed with my acting.

“Any idea what time they’ll be back or where they actually went?” He lifts the lid on the kettle, peers in to check the water level, then fills it and switches it back on again.

“I have no idea. I only got up half an hour ago, and haven’t even turned on the radio to catch what they’re up to. I’m sure it’s all fine.”

“We should probably turn the radio on at least,” he says. “Just in case.”

“I guess so,” I say. “I’ve just been enjoying the peace and quiet. Plus I really needed that sleep in.” He stretches, hands overhead, and I smile. “Obviously you needed a sleep in too.”

“Guilty, as charged,” he says, with a grin. The kettle has boiled, he fills his coffee cup, pops in a couple of sugarfree tabs (ugh!), and stirs.

Then he saunters over to the communications center by the side of the stairs. He sits down on the sofa, reaching across to turn the short wave on.

There’s nothing but static. That’s odd. Frowning, John turns the dial, trying to tune in to our standard frequency we use. He calls out, checking to see if Marika responds. She’s usually quick, a matter of moments, but five minutes pass and we hear nothing in return. Just white noise.

He then checks multiple frequencies, the regulars we’ve used in the past, and still nothing.

“That’s strange,” he mutters. Jacob stops playing his game, brown eyes wide open and watching. Then he gets up from his bean bag, to come over and find out what’s going on.

Over the next five minutes, John checks again and again, going over frequencies and call signs.

Nothing. Then, with a jolt, I notice something. Something I should have picked up on before.

“John,” I say quietly.


“We’re not hearing anything on any of our channels, are we?”

“No, not a damn thing. I don’t know what’s going on!”

“What about all the other channels?” I ask softly.

“I don’t get it either,” he says. “There should be all the regulars broadcasting this morning. Yet I’m not even getting the emergency services. There’s no-one. It’s complete silence.”

Except for us,” I say, a chill running up my spine.

“Except for us,” he repeats slowly, then: “Shit! No! Really?”

He slams the handset down, and turns the short wave off. He sits absolutely still. He’s breathing heavily, panicked all of a sudden.

“How long have we been broadcasting for?” he says breathlessly.

“Can’t have been more than fifteen minutes all up,” I say, guessing wildly, fear rising in me.

“Now what?” He’s looking at me, as if expecting me to know what to do.

I don’t know – I have no idea – but I know what this might mean.

“I don’t know,” I say. “But if we haven’t been quick enough, they could be on to us any moment. And Marika and Janice…” My voice trails away, and we stare at each other, both thinking the same thing.

They’ve been caught.

“They might now be, it could be…” John says slowly. “Maybe they realised what was going on, and are maintaining radio silence. Maybe…”

I shake my head. “How would they know? It’s only because they’re not answering us that we’ve even clued on!”

I swallow nervously, not knowing what to do or say next.

Jacob’s small voice breaks the silence. He says, “Is my mum safe? Is she coming home tonight?”

I’m at a loss for what to say to him.

“I don’t know if she’s coming home tonight,” I reply honestly. “But we’ll absolutely do our best to make sure she’s safe. Just as soon as we can. I promise.”

I turn to John. “Can you get Ani and Cam up out of bed? Like, right now?”

He nods, grimacing. “We’d better get out of here real fast, just in case.”

“Yep,” I say. “I don’t think they’ll be on to us that quickly. But I’d rather be safe.” I frown. “I just don’t know why this would have happened. The northerners aren’t due down until Monday, that much was clear.”

“Maybe they arrived early,” he replies, with a grim expression.

While John goes to wake up Ani and Cam, I help Jacob get dressed and ready. I’d never done this before he moved in, but already I’m a dab hand at it. At five, he’s capable of getting his clothes on, he just needs a bit of prompting and encouragement, and he can’t turn clothing back the right way when it’s inside out yet. But all in all, he’s pretty independent for a little guy.

Ten more minutes, and John locks the door behind us. We’re out of the main center of the city on the dirt bikes.

Ani and Cam are on one, and John, me and Jacob are on the other. Ours is a tight fit, as neither John nor I are small people, and Jacob is squished up in front of me, right up near the handlebars.

I’m reminded of the films I remember seeing in school of China back in the 1970s – whole families on one bicycle, with a pig slung over the back. Except this time it’s us, and John, pressing behind me, is the pig. I laugh quietly to myself at the thought of John with a curly piggy tail, as I ride through the streets, leaning into the corners.

We’re off to our hangar down in the warehouse district, down by the waterfront, where our drones are kept, plus our dingy and an assortment of other equipment. It’s our second base, our “Base 2”, fully equipped in case of emergency – in case of situations like this one when we might have to leave The Bastard real quickly and with no warning.

It was John’s idea, of course. Being a “prepper” and all, he’s planned for every emergency you could think of, starting with Avalanche and working right through the alphabet to Zombies. The hangar is equipped with sleeping bags and mats for all of us, a communications setup that we can contact everything from Russia to Antarctica with, and enough food to stock an army. Yeah, it’s sorted. All we have to do is reach it, and hope it’s never discovered. Because if Base 2 fails, we’re screwed.

Ani and Cam are following us via a different route two minutes later, to attract less attention and make being spotted less likely. Ani has a key as have both John and I, so even if they make it ahead of us – or even if we don’t make it – they can get in. The locks on the doors are deadlocks, with combinations as well as keys, and the CCTV cameras in this part of town are checked regularly by John to ensure they’re especially faulty. As long as we’re not followed, we should be absolutely safe once we arrive.

Right now, thinking about those cameras, I’m really thankful that we disconnected them throughout the streets of the city a long time ago, and that the city council, strapped for funds, has never bothered to fix them.

Without our concerted effort to break the cameras over the past couple of years, one after the other, especially in areas of interest to us, all our actions would have been fed back into central city computers, and from there on to the police or other authorities, depending on who requested the footage. As we zoom along the quiet city streets, John is keeping a look out to make certain we’re not followed.

We get to the hangar via several backtracks, loops and detours, with no problems at all. Ani and Cam are there already, ahead of us, helmets off and dismounted from their bike which they’ve already dragged inside.

They’ve opened up the hangar, and both are sitting at the communications bench in two of our fabulous wheeled chairs we scored from the auctioneers – they were leftovers from an office that went under a few years ago, and are super comfortable and great to shoot about in on the concrete floor of the old warehouse. Cam has already logged on to the computer.

“Is that wise to log on?” says John, a concerned expression on his face. “We’re already guessing that they’re monitoring the short waves, and I’m guessing they’re probably monitoring the citizen band widths as well.”

“I’m pretty sure it’s okay,” says Cam. “I think they’re probably just taking wild guesses at the moment, if they even really do know about us. I’m pretty certain that nobody knows about our computer accounts, or has any idea who any of us are. I’m not worried.”

“What about the CB channels?” I suggest. “You’ve checked the short wave, but nobody can wash out the CB channels. They’re too busy I’d think.”

John walks over to the main communications console, and switches on the CB, motioning to us to remain silent in the background. “I just want to check that it’s still the same, with nothing happening,” he says.

A wash of static hits the hangar, but no voices. Nothing. He flicks the dial, turning it around, checking channel after channel, and gets nothing.

“I guess that solves that question,” says Ani drily. “We’re still all alone.”

“Jesus H Christ!” says John, then adds a whole lot of extra, more colourful words. Then: “Crap. I didn’t think they’d be checking everything!”

He turns to face us all. “I just had a thought. Guys, don’t use your phones. If they’re watching the radio channels, they’re almost certainly monitoring the phone lines.”

“We already figured that out,” says Ani. “Waaaay ahead of you there, bro.”

“I guess we’re on our own,” I say. “And no way to contact the others.” I shake my head. “I can’t think of any way of getting in touch with them without using our phones, our radios, or the CB. Anyone got any other ideas? We could try Skype, but I’m figuring that they’re probably monitoring that too.”

I sit down on one of our wheelie chairs we use for monitoring the consoles, and rock it backwards and forward, fidgeting.

“Drones,” says Cam quietly.


“The drones,” he repeats, pointing at Drone 1 and Drone 2, which are parked over in a corner of the hanger, still there from when we last used them a few weeks back. “We can fly the drones out across towards the Port. You know that’s where Nigel always goes for field testing – he likes to look at the big tourist liners that come in every so often, and kill two birds with one stone – he can check out the liners and do field testing at the same time.”

John sits down on a second wheelie chair next to me. “He’s such a geek! But that’s not a bad idea,” he says thoughtfully, a smile slowly spreading across his face. “Nobody can track the Drones, and they send back their data on a completely different channel to anything they’d be expecting. Plus, they’re not going to be monitoring us down here at the hangar – if they’re going to look for us, it’ll be back up at The Bastard Arms. It might just work.”

He turns the main console of the computer guidance system for the drones on. It responds immediately. Within a minute or two he’s logged in and into the Drone Management System (DNS), ready to pilot a new course out of the hangar, towards the oval up on the hilltop overlooking the Port where we’re hoping Nigel and Janice will be.

“I’ll put sound on this time too,” he says, and nods to me. “That way, with the microphone and speaker system on the drone, we’ll be able to have a conversation with Nigel and Janice, without using any of the standard channels that we think are being watched. It’s a neat little work-around.”

“Which one?” I ask. “Which drone do you want to use?” John is our main drone pilot, so there’s no much doubt in my mind that he’s going to be the one to fly the thing. Sure, Cam or Ani or I could fly the thing at a pinch. But we’d also run a much higher risk of running the thing into a brick wall, or the sea, or the ground. And those drone are pretty expensive and more delicate than you’d think.

“Try Drone 2,” he says. I go over to the small white machine, all wings and stabilisers and propellers and tiny cameras, and turn on the tiny microphones and speaker systems that are attached just under the main body of the machine – both are add-ons that didn’t come attached to the drone when we bought it, and that Nigel added, just in case we ever needed them.

Turned out we did, I guess.

Instantly I hear a low hum emanating from the thing, letting me know that the speakers are in action. There’s a flashing green light on the thing that indicates that the microphones are working too, but I bend down and breathe into the closest microphone on the side of the Drone near me as a check, just in case. I hear my own breath funneled back to me and amplified, from the other side of the hangar, from one of the speakers at the main console.

“Yikes, those microphones are sensitive!” I say, laughing, and John wheels his chair back in alarm as my voice booms out to him from the speakers at the console, fifty times louder than I said it.

John grins back at me. “You betcha!” he says. “We’ll be able to pick up anything Nigel says to the Drone, once we find him.”

He grabs a joystick, gets out of his chair, and goes over to the drone, which is still sitting quietly in the middle of the floor. “Nigel will be able to hear anything we need to say to him too. We’ll be able to carry on full conversations, completely under the radar of anyone monitoring standard communication channels. Plus full visuals. Got to love this technology. Nigel did a great job of souping it up. We should get great sound and visuals. Once we find him, that is…”

Then he switches the drone engines on, from a minute, almost invisible switch on its underside, and switches the joystick on in his hand. A tiny flashing light flicks on and off, on and off on the drone, matched by an identical tiny light on his joystick handset.

He presses a button on the handset, and the propellers on the drone begin to whir lightly, faster than my eye can see them right from the very start.

The drone begins to lift off from the floor, and hover a meter or so above John, spiraling around him in a crazy aerial ballet.

“There’s no time like now,” he says. “We could wait, and do a few tests, but I’d rather get to them as soon as possible and warn them, in case they’re being tracked and followed. Rose, can you let it out?”

I give a thumbs up sign, get out of my chair, and walk over to open the far high window at the back of the hangar. It’s a lever window that leads right out over the water, as our hangar is right at the water’s edge.

I feel secure, knowing that the only way it would ever be tracked back to us is if someone happens to be watching from the water itself, or from a small jetty dead opposite. Or watching us with high powered lenses from across the bay.

I figure we’re safe. As safe as we can be, anyway, whatever that means.

John pilots the drone up through the open window and out in to the open air. I watch it disappear like a tiny electronic bee, zipping across the sky. Within seconds I can no longer hear its characteristic high pitched whirring, nor can I see it. It’s on its way, off to go find Nigel and hopefully reconnect us all.

John plonks himself down in his wheelie chair in front of the communications console. I sit back down beside him in my own chair, bringing up the feedback information from the drone.

Within seconds we can see what it sees, but in black and white – a endless stretch of choppy water stirred by a light wind as it soars over the bay, just meters above the water, skimming lightly across the surface of the waves, barely high enough to avoid contact with foam and sea.

I lean back, breathing a sigh of relief. John is great at piloting the drone, and for the first time since we found the airwaves silent this morning I’m feeling safe again.

Ani’s phone beers suddenly. Alerted, she sits down beside me on her tall, studded leather wingback chair – trust her to have a wingback chair here, but she does! I think hers must have belonged to a crime boss in a former life, or a psycho organist who likes to wear capes and masks.

“What’s that beep for?” I ask, curious about the noise.

“There’s someone at The Bastard who shouldn’t be there,” she says simply and quietly. “The alarm system has been triggered.”

“Alarm? I didn’t know we had an alarm,” I say.

“No,” she says. “It’s just something Nigel and I set up a couple of years ago when I was going out with the dick Peter. You know, the stalker – the creepy guy?”

I nod, remembering. She turns on her own console, and begins tapping away, bringing up a view from a camera that is very familiar. It’s the kitchen in the cellar flat of The Bastard Arms.

“Huh?” I say. “How?”

“You didn’t think I don’t have hidden cameras of my own, did you?” she says smugly.

“What? When?” I stammer.

“I put them in about a year ago. Maybe more. Maybe more like eighteen months ago, actually,” she says, a slow smile spreading across her face. “When we began that drive to get rid of all the CCTV cameras in the city limits, it occurred to me that it would probably be a good idea if we did some monitoring of our own that wasn’t just from our rooftop.”

“But when?” I ask finally, feebly.

“This one went in around midwinter last year,” she says cheerily. “When you all went on that trip up to Auckland and it was just me and Nigel at home for a few days? Well, I put the first couple in, in our bedrooms and in the stairwell, and then this one followed a few days later, when I’d confirmed the first two were working well.”

She’s watching the camera feed intently, clearly not wanting to look at me. “You know that guy Peter? Yeah, well, when he started stalking me, I asked Nigel if he could help me put in a security system, so I could keep track of things if anyone ever broke in. Or if anything ever happened to me with someone inside the flat.”

She looks at me. “It wasn’t very difficult,” she adds airily. “You buy the whole kit online, and there are full instructions. The kits didn’t cost much either. Any nob can do it. It took me a couple of hours for the first one, then the others were about half an hour apiece. The most difficult thing…” Her eyes narrow. “Was hiding the cameras from you all. John especially, as he’s trained to look for all this sort of stuff.”

“You did pretty well,” says John, admitting he’s impressed. “I never knew they were there.”

“With this system, if someone breaks in, I get an alarm and so does Nigel,” she says. “And the sound starts recording, as well as the footage, with a feed back to here. That’s how I set it up. So we should be hearing things…”

Then, as we look on in horror, two men cross the screen. As they cross the room, the sound kicks in, and Ani takes a second to adjust the feed, so we can hear what they’re saying. We can’t hear anything yet, but Ani keeps fiddling about in the hopes we can hear the conversation soon. All five of us – even Jacob – are stock still, listening, watching.

Impressive, and freaky, to see strangers in our beloved cellar flat.

They’re both tall, and blond, and wearing combat fatigues and berets that might be blue. One of the men is tiny, weedy, maybe five feet five in his boots with horn rimmed glasses behind which piercing eyes take in everything, everything in our private home.

The second man is imposing, in height, the width of shoulders and in sheer mass. He’s huge, and I can see the camera lens shaking when he walks. As he turns to look at the communications console against the stairs, his eyes are caught in full frame by the hidden camera. They’re the eyes of a killer, pale and empty.

Neither man appears rushed or concerned – they take their time walking through our home, rifling through our belongings. The small man even reaches inside the fridge and grabs himself one of John’s beloved iced coffees. I hear John curse under his breath as he watches in suspense, next to me, as the guy down it in a few short gulps then toss the empty carton carelessly on the floor.

We can see the two men speaking, and John whispers to Ani, “Do we have ears on yet? Any luck?”

In response, she nods, then inputs a few more strokes into her keyboard. At that moment, the larger man’s voice comes over the speaker system at the hangar.

He’s surprisingly soft-spoken for his size. And American. I think I would have found his voice less chilling had it been big and booming, not soft and smooth and amiable-sounding.

They’re talking about us, and in agreement that we haven’t been long since we left The Bastard.

“Not more than a couple of hours, by the look of things,” says the little guy. “Do you think they got wind of the radio silence and that tipped them off?”

“Undoubtedly,” says the huge man, stroking his chin thoughtfully. “I’d have been disappointed if they hadn’t. And you have absolutely no idea where they’ve gone?”

“No sir,” says the little guy. “When Rift put the command for radio silence through, they did exactly what we thought they’d do, which is lead us here. Not too clever. I’m guessing they’re just kids.”

He looks around. “This is clearly their main base of communications, and has been so for quite some time. Now, that fat old barmaid up top says she doesn’t know them, and maybe she does, maybe she doesn’t. Or maybe she knows them real well and is covering for them. Either way, we’ll figure it out. But they’ve only been gone here a short while so they can’t have gone far and must be in the vicinity. We’re watching the airport, and we don’t think they’d have access to private planes or boats.”

“So they’re here in town still,” says the big guy, moving closer to the communications console. Closer to our hidden camera. He’s flicking through computer games and DVDs now, checking labels, pulling them off the shelf, checking them one by one in case anything is hidden inside the plastic covers, tossing them casually aside when he finds they’re not hiding anything special.

“So they’re here in town still,” confirms the little guy, picking up the local paper which is strewn across the coffee table, and flicking through it, clearly searching for any of our papers that might have been lying underneath. “We will catch them. They’re too valuable to let this pass. Wellington thinks we’ve got another Rift on our hands. Or maybe something better. They could be very useful. And Rift wants them.”

“Another Rift?” says the big guy thoughtfully, pausing for a moment, barely a few centimeters away from our camera. “I’m not sure we want that! Wellington can barely control him as it is! Then again, some competition could keep him in check. He’s getting way too close in with the higher-ups.” He turns around, away from the lens. “Maybe we should make a greater effort to find these people.”

“It’s only the girls we’re interested in,” says the smaller man. “You know the deal…x-linked…makes it so much easier when we know our quarry…”

“Mmmmm, yes,” says the large man. “Shame about that. It’s always ugly to see a pretty girl get the Treatment. And Rift will never forgive them. He won’t make it pleasant.” They both chuckle at some in joke that I don’t understand. Then: “Come on. There’s nothing here. They’re long gone. Perhaps the other team down at the Port are having better luck.”

The Port!

“We’d better warn them!” I say to Ani, and we both turn back to John, who is still busy next to us, intently piloting the drone across the bay. “Are you catching any of this, John?” I motion to the monitor we’re watching, but the men are leaving the room, and it’s clear they’re finished at the cellar flat. I watch them disappear up the steairs of the flat, and they’re gone.

“Most of it,” he replies, trying not to be distracted, paying attention to his own task. “I’m doing what I can to get the drone to Nigel as fast as I can and warn him, but the drone can only go a certain speed. Beyond that, it just takes time. The drone will be there with Nigel in a few minutes. But I’m guessing that the authorities won’t get there any faster than we can. Which gives Nigel and Janice a little time at least, I hope.”

We watch the feed from the drone as it approaches the Port. There’s a huge cruise liner in town at the moment, and the tiny drone zooms right up close – within meters – of the liner, over the top of it, past the swimming pool and dual water slides that decorate the top most decks.

“Can’t help myself,” says John, grinning. “I’d love a closer look.”

“Not now,” I admonish him. “You and Nigel are a pair – you’re as bad as each other. But for now – Nigel and Janice, remember?”

The drone skirts past the liner and up over the hillside behind the Port, to a level paddock high up on the cliff top where we’ve known Nigel to do field tests before. It’s an out-of-the-way place, quiet and secluded, with only one road leading past it, and a view for miles in all directions. No chance to be caught unawares, and plenty of room to do any tests without being observed by anyone.

And he’s there. Nigel is there. And Janice. We can see the truck, pulled up and hidden mostly out of sight behind an old, dilapidated barn, certainly out of view from the road – you’d have to look carefully at exactly the right time to see the truck nestled there, hidden away.

As the drone flies in closer, Nigel and Janice become aware of its presence – Nigel looks up, and waves, a grin on his face. He’s pleased to see the drone. It’s clear that there’s been no trouble whatsoever, and the tests are going well.

John lands the drone carefully, only meters from where Nigel and Janice are standing, and Nigel walks over. He can see from the blinking light that tells him we can see and hear him, and says curiously: “Hey, what’s going on? Some reason why you couldn’t use the radio?”

John speaks into the built-in microphone in his handset, an urgent tone in his voice: “Don’t use the radios! We’re being monitored, and this guy called Rift and his cronies are trying to track us down. We’ve already had to abandon The Bastard, and we’re on the run. All safe for now, out at Base 2.”

It had always been agreed that, if we were any of us in trouble, we’d refer to the hangar as “Base 2”. Because “Base 2” could be, well, anywhere.

“Really bad, huh?” says Nigel, his head to one side, thinking. “We’ve seen nothing. But bad enough for this?”

“You’re not wrong,” I reply, over John’s shoulder. “We can’t figure out how exactly, but they must have tracked us down when we tried to contact you over the radios this morning. I don’t see how they could have found out where we were any other way. We’ve been really strict with our protocols, and Janice and Jacob have stayed put the whole time. So they can’t have been seen by anyone who could have recognized them from the “New Zealand’s Most Wanted” lists. We’ve never been discovered up until now, and nothing else has changed.”

“Ah, that may have been my fault,” says Nigel. “I was doing some tests on the radio last night, just signal strength tests and such, relaying back to Janice, checking from a few different points around the city.”

He stutters. “I…I thought there was something wrong with our communications equipment…it kept whiting out. Just static. I couldn’t figure out why. In the end, I packed it in, and headed back to The Bastard.” He scratches his head. “But I never gave our position or said anything about any of your Powers. Nothing that would have made anyone suspect anything out of the ordinary.”

“Yes you did,” says Janice slowly, speaking up. “I remember you wondering, when we couldn’t get clear reception from the top of Lookout Point, whether my Geomagnetic Powers were influencing the radios and their signal strength. You…you said we’d check it out in the morning.”

Nigel’s face is bright red. “Shit.”

“What?” says John. “So you actually used the term ‘geomagnetic powers'”?

“Shit,” says Nigel. “I think I may have. I’m really sorry.”

“So they’ve had all night to track us down?” I say incredulously. “You’re an idiot, Nigel. We’re damn lucky we haven’t been picked up by the authorities yet.”

“Did you mention the Port at all?” asks John, a hint of anger in his otherwise usually placid voice.

“Shit,” says Nigel again. “Maybe. Maybe I have. Look, I’m sorry guys. I guess I haven’t been that smart.”

“Damn right you haven’t – ” I begin angrily.

John cuts me off. “It’s okay. We’re safe – for now. So have you had a chance to actually do any testing on Janice this morning? Because I’d suggest that if you haven’t done it by now, you get a move on real fast. The guys we saw in The Bastard were talking about a gang of their mates out at the Port, so they could be here any second.”

“Oh yes, yes!” says Nigel excitedly. “We have done some tests. They’ve been amazing. Smashing, yes! We’ve had some absolutely smashing results. She’s one incredibly powerful woman.”

He gets this huge, wide, almost insane smile on his face. “Geomagnetism – who’d have thought it? So incredibly interesting…so, so interesting! We started testing when we arrived here early this morning, before the sun was even up, and by the time a half an hour had passed, it was quite clear to me that we were on to something completely unique, something I’ve never seen before. I can’t wait to watch Janice as she learns how to harness and channel her full capabilities.”

“What can she do?” I ask, curious in spite of myself, and my awareness that we need them to move, fast.

“There’s a police car coming up from the Port real fast,” says Janice suddenly, interrupting. “Listen.” In the distance, I could hear a siren wailing.

“They wouldn’t use sirens if they were trying to sneak up on you and catch you,” says Ani sensibly, peering over my shoulder at the screen.

“Nigel, stand back so John can get the drone up in the air, just in case,” I say. “Then move behind the shed, and we’ll hover there.” Nigel does so, and John expertly pilots the drone up and behind the shed where it hovers, whirring away quietly, while Nigel and Janice move behind the shed and out of view from the road.

The police car hurtles past the barn, sirens on and horns blaring, then disappears up the hill, the noise fading away into the distance.

“Not us,” says Nigel, and John drops the drone to the ground again.

“What can she do?” I repeat.

“Well,” says Nigel, his geeky soul bursting with the thrill of it all, barely able to contain his excitement. “She can control the navigation of not just animals, but aircraft, planes, and even modern cars that have onboard navigation systems that rely on information about the earth’s magnetic field. Theoretically, she could probably control rockets, missiles, and various UAVs that rely on geomagnetic information.”

“So I can see why the military and the authorities in general might be interested in her!” says John, leaning forward, intrigued.

“Hell yes!” says Nigel. “But it gets better.”

“It does?” I ask, puzzled. How could it possibly get better for the military than the ability to control their own missiles? “Is she the same as us, with no distance issues? Like, is she able to control stuff, no matter how far away it is?”

“Pretty much, from what I can tell,” says Nigel, nodding. “But that’s not the interesting part. The interesting part is what she can do to humans. To people.”

“What do you mean?” asks Ani. “What can she do to us? We don’t navigate using geomagnetism.”

“That’s just it,” says Nigel. “We do. We human animals – oh, how I love using that term, because it’s so completely appropriate – we  human animals have a kind of magnetoreceptor protein in our eyes. It’s called cryptochrome.”

He grins delightedly. “It’s fascinating stuff. These proteins help us navigate, they help keep ourselves upright, help us find to our way around, even help us do stuff as basic as put one foot in front of the other.”

He rubs his hands together, and continues. “In other words, we’re totally, completely dependent on the earth’s magnetic field when it comes to getting around. Just as dependent as homing pigeons, although we’re not nearly as good at it.”

He takes a deep breath. “When things go wrong – when these proteins are disrupted – we can’t navigate. We can’t even walk straight. We’re literally unable to move, fixed in one place. If we try to move, we stagger around like drunks, falling over if we try to take so much as a single step. It’s hilarious. You should have seen me in the tests this morning. And Janice here, she can control these forces, this magnetism, these proteins.”

He looks directly at the tiny camera lens on the drone, and it is as if he’s in the room with us, staring right at us. “Janice can control us all, every movement we make. If she learns to control her Power, she can move us about like puppets. She can pull the strings on any human in the world, at any time. You, Rose, can control the plants. And you, Ani, can control the animals but Janice here – she controls us.”

“She just needs time to learn how.”



CHAPTER 7: Tiny killer robots can be tasty and nutritious

If you’re coming in late, the novel starts here: CHAPTER 1: Some bugger steals my sushi

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Daniel, Tina and I watched the miniature robots in silence, as they scuttled across the plate. They were so tiny they almost resembled dust particles suspended in the air in brownian motion, bumping haphazardly against one another.

I longed for a closer look, all the whole feeling slightly nauseous that I’d consumed a dosage of these little critters earlier in the day, thinking they were painkiller.

“Crap,” I said. “You mean I ate these things, and didn’t know it? I’m going to find that doctor and kill her!”

“Don’t you get it?” said Tina, whacking me across the shoulder. “This isn’t something you’d normally see in Dunedin. Not here. That was no ordinary doctor who prescribed you these – or if she was, she had no idea what she was giving you. This is absolutely cutting edge technology, straight out of Beijing, if I were to guess.”

She leaned back in her chair with a sigh, “Hey, Kayly!” she yelled and, being right next to me, just about deafened me.

We heard footsteps from down the hallway. “Yeah?” her flatmate stuck her head around the kitchen doorway. “What? You managed to hack series seven yet?”

“Can we use the lab? I mean, seriously – come and check this out.”

Karly, curious, sauntered over. She leaned over the three of us from behind, and gazed down at the plate on the table, and at the tiny silvery nanobots scuttling around. “What the hell…?”

“Yeah,” said Tina, nodding. ” ‘Hell’ is about right. Get these things! Mike here swallowed a pill full of these little buggers this morning, was treated to the acid trip of a lifetime, and now we have no idea what they’re doing inside him right now.” She looked at me, impishly. “Could be turning his digestive system to mush as we speak,” she added.

“Gee, thanks for that, Tina,” I said, gulping nervously, “Now I feel a whole lot better. You got a suitable length of rope for me to hang myself with, so I can get it over with right now?”

“Ahhh, don’t worry, Mike” said Tina, patting me on the shoulder and sounding relaxed. “They’re not likely to cause you any long term damage. The bots are obviously meant to be swallowed, or they wouldn’t have been put into a pill. These guys are digestible. Well, kind of. Like sweetcorn. Or carrots.”

“That doesn’t help me much,” I said. “I’ve got thee little robot things…”

“Nanobots,” corrected Tina.

Nanobots,” I sighed, “Running around inside me, doing who knows what. Who knows what they could make me do next. It could be anything. Anything. God…”

“Yeah,” said Tina, “They could turn you into a nutjob, except they’d be too late on that point.”

I just love hanging out with an ex. They really make your day, sometimes. Tina was real good at making my day, any time I saw her. Thanks, Tina.

“Well, we can guess roughly what these things do, anyway,” said Daniel. He’d been quiet for a few minutes, and we all three of us turned to face him.

“Yeah?” said Tina.

“Well, it’s pretty obvious that the nano-dudes caused Mike to trip this morning. He thought he was having a drug-induced frenzy, complete with boy choristers – and what does that say about you, Mike? – but in reality, it was these little metal bug things doing the nasty in his brain.”

“You might be right, genius-boy,” said Tina, grudgingly. “But I want to check out what these bots look like up close. Look: we’ll take a few pills down to the lab, open them up, and see if we can learn anything more about them. Like where they’re from. From what I’ve read, most bots have a maker’s mark on them, or some sort of ID to give an indication of the manufacturer and purpose.”

“So you want to get a look at these bots under the microscope?” ased Kayly. “That makes sense. Could be interesting, too.”

“Yeah. Once we know where they’re from, we might be able to piece this whole thing together. Gotta admit, it beats hacking yet another bloody bank, which is what I previously had planned for the afternoon. It’s nice to have something new, a challenge, for a change.”

“Bank, my arse,” muttered Kayly, as we stood up. “She was hacking for series seven of Tribeca

I chuckled quietly at Kayly’s comment, as the four of us sauntered through the bathroom-cum-laundry at the back of the house, and out through the back door to the yard.

Behind the back chimney, Kayly bent to move aside a wooden bench upon which sat a few of Tina’s legal herbs – pots of rosemary, basil and mint – on prominent display for any visitors who might not be inner circle members and know the real deal.

The pots were glued firmly on to the bench, and the whole thing swung aside easily. If you took the time to look, or knew what you were looking for, you’d notice that the whole thing was balanced beautifully on an elegantly concealed hinge, enabling it to be moved aside in one quick movement, exposing a small hatchway behind the bench.

The ideal secret hatchway: quick, easy to access, and well-hidden for prying eyes.

Kayly stooped down to unlock a padlock on the small access door that led to underneath the house, and shot the bolt open. We had to bend nearly double to get inside, but once through the hatchway we could all of us, except Daniel, stand upright without our heads touching the floorboards of the house above.

The hidden room had originally been built as a cellar for the old house, dug out of the earth to provide a cool space for food storage and general stashing of garden tools and suchlike.

It had been abandoned for over a decade before Kayly and Tina moved in. And with good reason – on high tide days, before the girls’ “alterations”, the room had been over thirty centimeters deep in water, thanks to sea levels rising in the last decade.

Kayly and Tina were pretty resourceful, and a solid and well-planned combination of sandbags, concrete blocks and a wind-powered pumping mechanism hooked up to a “decorative” windmill in the garden kept the room mostly dry. If you walked on the interior boardwalk which Kayly had installed, you had barely a chance of getting your toes damp, even in the king tides.

It was a good set up. Cellars were not “suspect” in this part of town which was so low-lying. They’d pretty much all been abandoned, so by hiding the hatchway and a bit of fancy hacking and alterations of council copies of the original housing plans, this whole level to the house was official underwater and under the radar. Nobody knew about it that Kayly and Tina didn’t want to know about it, and the people who did know were few.

It was a great place to set up anything you didn’t want the authorities to know about. As Tina and Kayly’s whole operation depended on the authorities not knowing what was going on, it was a pretty necessary part of their daily existence.

We set up on one of Kayly’s lab benches.

Tina took another “panadeine” pill from its blister pack, popped it into a petri dish, and doused it with water, watching, fascinated, as the tiny nanobots came to life, re-arranging themselves and scuttling across the glass. Then she took the dish, sliding it under the skope, freezing still photos of the little creatures on a screen on the bench, zooming in on various parts of their anatomy, and attempting to uncover information about their manufacturer, origin, design and purpose.

The nanobots varied in shape and design: some had eight legs, some four, and a few of the four-legged species had small antennae that made them resemble nothing so much as miniscule, four-legged ants.

“What do you think, Kayly?” Tina asked her flatmate.

“This is really neat stuff,” said Kayly, watching the bots as they idled back and forth across the glass, their miniscule legs skidding, and seeming to swim, on the slick, clear surface. “Well beyond the ability of local manufacture. Obviously imported. Chinese, almost certainly. To be truthful, I’ve never seen anything this good. These things are five years into the future, possibly ten or more…years ahead of anything I knew existed.”

“But where do you think they came from?” I asked, “Are they going to hurt me? And why the hell are they posing as panadeine forte?”

“I’ve got no idea,” replied Kayly. “But one thing I can be pretty certain of, by looking at their physiology. They’re short-term; designed to last only a few hours. Their shells are already dissolving in the water I threw on them. I’d estimate a lifespan of, at most, maybe two to four hours. Have a few beers, and chances are you’ll piss them right out of your system in no time, without even noticing they were there.”

“And their purpose?” asked Daniel. “Ae they a mechanical version of a drug? Like spike, but with legs?”

“I don’t know,” said Kayly. “I really don’t. Like I said, I’ve never seen anything like this before, except in readings about what might be possible – in a decade or so. I wasn’t aware of this sort of thing actually being available, until now. And I certainly wouldn’t have thought anyone in their right mind would bother feeding such high tech weaponry to a bum like you, Mike.” She winked at me.

“Thanks, Kayles,” I said.

“Besides, you already know more than us about these things, Mike,” said Tina.

“Yeah? Like what?”

“Well…were they tasty? Could you feel them crawling around in your brain?” Tina made her voice low and Dracula-like. “Did they make you feel like you wanted blood…human blood?

I knocked her good-humouredly, “Yeah, your blood, idiot.”

Daniel, who was watching the screen shots of the nanobots, completely ignored our goofing around and asked, “So, any sign of who made them or where they’re from? Or what they actually do?”

Kayly peered at the bots on the screen. “Let me zoom in a bit…here…look…you can see by the tagging that they target mitochondrial DNA – or that’s my best guess, from the markers. That bot does, anyway. Others might have different purposes. Beyond that, no idea. They might have something to do with tagging individual humans, identification, tracing lineage, race…Your guess is as good as mine – okay, well it’s not, because you’re clueless in this field, but you get the idea.”

“And then what?”

“Don’t know. If you have a look at that one – there – that might be some sort of transmitter, but it’s too small and too delicate, and way too advanced beyond standard technology for me to be certain. And if it is, who knows what it’s transmitting? Or to whom?”

“t’s sending off all your dirty thoughts exposed, Mike,” said Tina, nudging me. “To the whole world.”

“It’s a good thing they’re all about you, then,” I shot back, and Daniel glowered at the remark.

“Yes, well!” interrupted Kayly. “When you lot can stop regressing to your teenage years, this is kind of important!”

“My bad,” said Tina, with a grin. “Our next move? Find a buyer for these bots on the market, and see who bites? Make some cash?”

“Yeah, maybe,” said Daniel. “I can…check around. See if anyone’s missing anything. Or heard about anything going down. That said, there were dozens of packs of these things in that dispensary. For something so supposedly hi tech, there were heaps of them, and no-one was keeping a particularly good watch on them either.”

Something occurred to me. “Maybe they wanted them to be stolen?”

“I don’t know it is that put the bots in the hospital,” said Tina. “But it’s certain they’re not regular stock, right Kayly?”

Kayly nodded. “Especially not in the packs they were in, being passed off as panadeine forte. This was intentional mislabelling.”

“So my guess is that whoever put them there wanted them to be stolen, or consumed, by someone who didn’t know they were taking them,” I said.

“Yeah. So?”

“So I’m probably part of some big experiment, right?” A bad feeling was starting to creep up on me as I was speaking, and a sense of foreboding was starting to form in my mind.

“Shit!” said Tina, and it was clear to me, all at once, that the same thought that was starting to form in my mind had already formed in hers. “If you’re part of an experiment…”

“…Then you can be sure you’re being monitored,” Kayly finished her sentence for her. “Crap! You bastards! You just had to come here, didn’t you!”

“I didn’t know!” I protested. “I didn’t…” I looked again at the seemingly innocuous nanobots, swarming in their petri dish. “Crap!”

“We didn’t think…” Daniel began, but already the girls were closing down the scope. Tina hurled the remainder of the packet of “panadeine forte” at Daniel. “You bastard! Get out of here! Now!”

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READ ON: CHAPTER 8: By the Waters of Leith