It does NOT fit into to my "Umbra" series at all, but is at least set in the same basic !verse, after "Predators and Prey". But it gets weirder than that, too, because it also draws on a couple of other unexpected sources. One, the hit cult movie Hackers (starring Angelina Jolie). And two, the boy genius from SeaQuest. Why? ::shrugs:: Why not? Just go with it. ;)
For those KR fans who might read this, sorry that this is mostly M7-focused. Nick and Karr were there in spirit though. :)
Team Seven were hard at work typing up their reports after a successful bust that afternoon. They were concentrating so diligently on their files that not even their highly-trained senses detected the office door creaking open to allow a gangly, waif-like woman in. With a thin hard-boned face, unstyled short hair, and absolutely no make-up, she looked more like a teenager than a woman in her thirties. The baggy jeans and Muppets t-shirt only enhanced the image she was trying to project.
As no one noticed her at first, she took the moment to observe the ATF agents at their desks. A large man with his back to her caught her attention when he let out a boisterous laugh, leaning over the chair of another (much younger) dark-haired agent. That agent was seated at his computer, and the woman briefly tried to catch a glimpse of what he was working on, but the big man's body effectively blocked her view of the monitor.
She turned her attention to the rest of the room. She was only looking for one man in particular, but habit ensured she leave nothing and no one out of her visual sweep. Across the crowded space, a handsome black man and older grey-haired agent were deep in discussion over what looked like a case file. A well-dressed and very attractive man, head phones planted firmly on his ears, was leaning back in his chair with his eyes closed. He wasn't asleep, but also very obviously was not doing any work. She wondered a bit at that, but decided it wasn't her problem and moved on to survey the rest of the team.
Through the open blinds of the only private office, she could see the team's blond-haired boss busily yelling at someone over the phone. His otherwise beautiful features were contrasted by a hard angry glare as his grip on the phone tightened in displeasure. The woman blinked and shivered, thankful the closed door mercifully muffled the words if not the angry tone itself. She wouldn't want to ever be on the receiving end of that temper. Best she find who she came for, and get out of here as fast as possible.
Unfortunately, at no time in her searching did she see the man she sought.
"Well, howdy there, darlin'! Something we can do for you?"
The question came from the big man whose bulk had earlier thwarted her curiosity. He had finally noticed her and turned to face her. She felt her heart skip a beat as she looked into his eyes. He had a kind of look about him that probably made him very popular with the ladies –- or at least the pretty ones, she thought with a touch of resentment –- but that wasn't why she suddenly had butterflies in her stomach. No, she was on the verge of bolting because now that the big man had spoken, she had acquired the attention of every man in the room. Even the boss, whom she'd seen slam the phone back on its hook in sheer disgust, had come out of his office to assess her. The woman's throat went dry with nervousness.
Licking her lips to wet them, she tried to say something to make them stop staring at her. "I'm... uh, I'm looking for Vince–- I mean, Agent Tanner?" she stammered.
"He's just stepped out for a minute, darlin'. Is there something we can help you with, miss...?" The big man said, cordially showing her to a seat. He gave her reassuring smile when she cautiously perched on the edge like a nervous bird. "I'm Agent Buck Wilmington, one of Vin's teammates. So are all of these boys," he added, trying to calm her.
It wasn't working. "I... uh, I... that is... I'm... -- oh, Vince!" She sighed in relief, glad she wouldn't have to make any more of an idiot of herself trying to hold a conversation with these strange men. The was a reason she never went into field work, after all.
Just coming back from the washroom, Vin Tanner was a little startled to be greeted by a woman's shrill voice. He looked up from his feet to see each of his teammates gathered around Buck's desk, with a very familiar if unexpected guest sitting shakily in his chair.
"Francie? What are you doin' here?"
Francie hopped out of the chair as Vin approached, squeezing past the guys to grip frantically at the sharpshooter's arm. Vin took her hand in his own. "What is it?"
"I don't know! I was just doing my thing, you know... monitoring the system, and thee-these guys busted down my door! I barely made it out the cellar escape route. They even had guys on the roof!"
"What kind of guys?"
Francie hesitated, tossing a furtive glance at the other listening men. Vin patted her hand and smiled. "S'okay. Don't worry 'bout it. Now, what kind of guys?"
With this final reassurance to ease the last of her nervousness, she spoke without any hint of her earlier reticence. "A strike team. Alpha and beta groups. My sensornet picked up six men on the ground floor and six more on the roof. They were fully equipped, up to and including heat-shield body armor! If it wasn't for my EZT, I may never have known they were there."
"Huh? Oh, it's Lucas's newest invention. Detects the electrostatic vibrational field emitted by all living things. He modeled it after a fish's lateral organs. It's really very revolutionary! I was testing out the prototype version for him."
"So the strike force wouldn't have known you had this new weapon?"
The woman squinted distastefully at the federal agent. "It's not a weapon, Vince. It's a scientific research tool –- though I suppose it's true enough that it has militarial applications, Lucas would never allow it to fall into government hands."
Vin smirked at her tangential answer. "Okay, so if the strike force didn't know about it, then they wouldn't have known you'd be able to detect them coming. You said they came fully equipped –- to surpass all your other usual defenses?"
"I..," Francie stopped, stunned. "You're right! But... who were they? And why are they after me?"
Vin could only shrug his shoulders. "Was kinda hoping you could tell me. Is there anything else about them you remember?"
"Oh sure. How about the fact that they've trailed me all the way from New Orleans?"
Tanner took this in, including the annoyed look on her waspish face, and grew suspicious. "Why did you come here, Francie?"
Francine, Francie to her few friends, pulled herself free of Vince's grip and wrapped her arms about herself. "I didn't know where else to turn," she said softly. "You're the only one I have an up-to-date location for, and I didn't even have time to do more than lock-out the Net before they broke in. I haven't even been able to stop long enough to get access to a secure computer and modem." She looked up at the Texan, blinking back tears. "I had no where else to go."
Chris spoke up for the first time. "You could have gone to the police," he suggested mildly.
Francie snorted, even as Vin shook his head. "No she couldn't."
Vin looked at him. "Same reason Alex couldn't when Nick got kidnapped."
The woman's attention was immediately captured by this, and she swung wide eyes in Tanner's direction. "Nick? Our Nick?"
"Yup. Devil popped up to play his usual games. I got called in to change the rules," Vin explained with a self-satisfied smile. Obviously, he'd succeeded in his goals.
"Good," Francie declared, a touch of the same steel in her voice that permeated Vin's. Then the penny dropped and she returned to her usual bird-like manner to nervously ask, "they know about us?"
"Us?" Ezra broke in. "No offence, madam, but you hardly look... That is to say, you do not strike one as a... uh..." the verbose agent stuttered to a halt, unusually at a loss for words. After all, how do you delicately ask someone if they were a trained killer?
But Francie merely smiled shyly. "No, I wasn't a field operative like Nick or Vince, here. I'm a beta operative. I gather, collate, then supply information to the alpha field agents. I'm also one of the three who maintain and uphold DarkNet."
JD's heat shot up and he gasped loudly. "DarkNet! But, that's just a rumour!"
Francie grinned. "Why yes. Yes, it is."
As JD frowned in confusion, Vin rolled his eyes and poked Francie with his elbow. "She's joking, JD. DarkNet is the secure system we use to keep in touch with each other. Only the kids of Phoenix have access to it. Squirrel and her lot have got it so locked down, even the best hackers in the world couldn't break into it."
"Wouldn't matter even if they could. Even if someone could crack the layers of protective code to get in, the whole system's useless without the decryption hardware." Francie added, the topic now on familiar ground. "Besides, all the world's best hackers are already members anyway," she winked.
JD blinked, his brain rapidly connecting the dots. "Wait a minute! Vin called you 'squirrel'. Oh my god! You're Squirrel! Squirrel!" He was almost hyperventilating in his excitement as he jumped up to enthusiastically shake her hand.
The woman blushed at his almost worshipful stare, ducking her head and peering at the agent from through her eyelashes. "You've, uh... you've heard of me?" she asked timidly, secretly pleased.
Dunne's bobbed up and down like one of those toy dogs Buck had glued to his dashboard. "Of course! You're famous! You're so elite, you could have shown Crash and Burn a thing or two!"
"Crash and Burn?" Vin asked, amused.
Francie's blush deepened. "Crash Override and Acid Burn, two of the best hackers from the early nineties. They led a team of hackers from around the world in 1994, up against the corrupt CEO of Elllingson Oil."
"Right. Ellingson had a virus threatening to capsize their supertankers, spilling billions of tons of crude oil into the ocean. It would have been the greatest ecological disaster of our generation. Crash and Burn hacked Ellingson's Gibson mainframe to stop it," JD filled in. "It was a land-mark event to the cyberspace community."
"Were you a part of that?" Francie asked JD.
Now it was JD's turn to blush. "Well, uh... not really. I mean, I wanted to help and all, but I wasn't good enough to get in. The Gibson knocked me out before I'd gotten past the third level," he finished in embarassment.
"Oh, you poor thing," Francie murmured sympathetically, briefly reaching out to lightly touch his shoulder in comfort. "It's okay. The Gibson was designed to repel hackers, it would have been too fast even for me. Heck, that's why Crash and Burn called on Hack The Planet!. The only way to crack the Gibson was to overwhelm it with numbers -– and every little bit helped. At least you got to join in. I was too busy to participate. I've always regretted that. It would have been wonderful to have done something like that," she sighed.
"Something like that?"
"Yeah. Something completely unselfish, for the good of mankind. I mean, I've helped people... but always for a price or by some ulterior motive." Her hawk-like features softened a bit as she dipped her head in regret. "It's very difficult to maintain any kind of altruistic philosophy when you're involved in the dangerous world of mercenaries, even if only peripherally."
JD had nothing to say in response to that. He shrugged sympathetically.
"Well, nevermind that now." Vin took Francie's elbow. "You c'mon with me and tell me all about what you've been up to for the past few months and about this strike force a yers. We'll figure somethin' out for dealin' with 'em." He slanted a half-grin a her, pleased when slowly smiled back. "Can't be lettin' anything endanger our precious watchdog, after all, hmm? And when we're done here, I'll take ya home with me... let ya use ma computer to take care of whatever you gotta take care of. That alright with you?"
Francie sighed in relief and gratitude, feeling safe for the first time in days. She'd be alright now. Vince would protect her.
The Hunter was on the case, and God help the bastards who'd dared threaten her.
"Thankyou, Vince. That sounds perfect."
Endnote: Francie, aka 'Squirrel', will have a minor minor role in the third story of the "Umbra" series.