Alyssa crawls through the duct on eir belly, half wondering why it’s big enough to fit em, half glad enough that it is not to wonder. The small arsenal of guns and knives and exploding swords e always carries with em isn’t making things any easier. It’s not just that getting stuck here would be hell: even the sound of eir weapons scraping against the walls could be enough to get em killed.
Anyway, e has a mission to complete.
The hostages should be somewhere in the compound, but where they are exactly e doesn’t know. Searching room-by-room wouldn’t be viable even if the network of conveniently large ducts went far enough, which it doesn’t. Espionage is mission-critical, and it’s eir excuse for belly-crawling towards command central by the quickest route e can work out.
The thing that’s running this place isn’t human. It’s not even alive – just a complex collection of transistors and wires, close enough to a brain that it pretends to emotion, smart enough to have no trouble collecting followers. Its goals are admirable enough, by the propaganda: world peace, an end to poverty and disease. The usual. Its plans for getting there are not.
Alyssa memorised the compound’s blueprints before breaking into the vents. E knows where e has to go. At last, as silent as e can, e creeps up to a grate through which e can see the electrical brain that runs this place: LEDs flicker up and down its massive face like the pulse of strobe lights, giving it the barest hint of emotional expression. In front of it is a figure in uniform, decorated with just enough badges and trim to mark them – almost certainly – as Head Something-or-Other. Alyssa didn’t bother learning the titles structuring the brain’s henchpeople, but there’s a good chance this person is second in command.
The brain’s voice is a heavy drone of spinning fans and rasping metal. “Make your report.”
The henchie bows. The hostages are secure, they sign. Alyssa winces, suppressing a curse: e has to squint through the grating to make out their words, and it’s only luck that e understands the language at all. So much for easily overhearing what e needs to know.
“Are they comfortable? Well-fed? There is no need for their stay here to be unpleasant, after all.”
E thinks e reads exasperation in the henchie’s gestures. Yes. We gave them blankets, tea, a hot meal with dessert, and a large supply of puzzle books and reading materials. Some of them are still restless.
“Inform them that the use of our pool is available to them, with escort.”
At this rate we’ll get reviews as a five-star hotel.
Alyssa’s knuckles tighten. The inhuman thing in the room below em fancies itself a philanthropist, but it doesn’t understand the difference between freedom and a prison. All the dessert in the world won’t give those hostages comfort – and they know, as well as Alyssa does, that their captor will kill them without hesitation if its demands aren’t met. One every hour, starting at midnight. Alyssa’s mission is to rescue the hostages, nothing more, but e didn’t pack eir exploding swords for nothing.
“Is there anything else to report?”
No. The henchie turns and walks away, almost out of Alyssa’s range of sight, then stops and turns back again. Wait.
Their dancing fingers are almost completely obscured at this angle. Alyssa shifts eir head back and forth, trying to make out what words e can: hostages, move, room – this is it, this is what e needs, and e can’t bloody see it. E leans forwards, pressing eir face against the grate –
It comes loose with a loud clatter, and Alyssa pitches forwards into the room.
For a half a second e lies winded, trying to sort out where eir legs are and which direction is up. Something aches fiercely in eir back and shoulder. An alarm is blaring in eir ear –
E pirouettes to eir feet, barely dodging a bullet, and draws a revolver even before e has eir bearings. The duct is ripped half open, dangling a long stripe of metal from the ceiling. The brain’s LEDs are flashing in alarm. E catapults eirself towards the only shelter e sees – the open door – but the henchie is already behind it, firing, and it’s only luck that they can’t seem to hit a moving target.
Down the hallway e hears footsteps, running. E yanks the door away from the henchie’s clinging hands and slams it shut, then spins on eir toes and empties eir revolver into their head. They wasted their shots on the air, and wasted their dodging time on reloading: sloppy, but Alyssa has that sloppiness to thank for eir life.
“You will not defeat me with bullets or knives,” the brain warns em, emotionless except for the wild flashing of lights across its surface.
“I don’t need to.”
Alyssa draws the swords e has strapped to eir back, triggers the fuses, and slams them into flashing thing’s heart.
The explosion shakes the room, sending electric shrapnel flying across the room. Sparking bits of wires embed themselves in the door, the walls, the armoured shirt Alyssa never goes without. It’s pretty much ruined, but then so are eir swords.
By the time the guards break through the door to find their leader in flaming ruin, e’s hoisted eirself back into the duct and belly-crawled away for eir life. The guards don’t try to come after em. It’s a perfect crime.
Halfway through the compound, e realises e still doesn't know where the hostages are.