“What exactly are we out here for again?”
“You know, Ralph, that is the sixth time you have asked that question and the answer is still the exact same.”
“I know Kelly, I just like to here you say it in that sultry voice of yours. Makes me all giddy.”
“We’re here looking for a box. About twenty centimeters by fifteen. Should weigh a little over three pounds and be made out of hard wood with an aluminum frame.”
“When you put it that way, I don’t see how I could possibly keep pestering you.”
“So you will shut up now?”
“Absolutely.” There was around a fifteen second break of silence as the two travelers worked their way down a steep hillside in the Gunnison Natural Forest. Kelly Ollish was in the lead, wearing grey shorts and a light tan jacket, and with a trademark smear of suntan lotion on her nose.She was short, thin, and compact, with fiery red hair that made many girls envious. With her sun vulnerability, most people assumed she was natural, but Ralph had seen her use various products to keep her shine; not that he minded.
Ralph followed reluctantly behind, wearing a deep blue overcoat and black pants and carrying an enormous backpack equipped with all of the essentials a pair of over-prepared hikers would need. He had short cropped brown hair and stood a few inches taller than Kelly. “So…” Ralph began after catching his breath. “What’s in the box?”
“You are hopeless. If I say a kitten will you shut up?”
“Only if it’s true.”
“It’s a kitten.”
“You’re lying. Why won’t you tell me? We’ve been together for almost three months now and I trust you with my every secret. I even told you about the time I lost my swimming trunks at the pool and had to run home naked.”
“That’s exactly why I won’t tell you. What happens when some unsuspecting hiker comes along, says ‘good day’ to us and you blab the reason we are really out here? It’s bad enough that you wore that awful blue coat.”
“I wouldn’t go anywhere without it.”
“It’s ninety degrees!”
“Eighty-four. This nifty watch you gave me keeps track of the temperature. Though I see your point. I am starting to chafe pretty bad.” Ralph paused for a moment and took out a canteen, spilling as much water on him as in his mouth. “We’re almost out of water, too.”
“Remind me to never really take you camping.”
“Besides, what is the likelihood of us actually seeing another person, anyway? People don’t hike. They play games on the internet and watch TV all day, and when they do get the ambition to go outside they go to paved parks to look at the manufactured trees.”
“At least there aren’t bugs at those parks.” Ralph slaps his neck, then curls a bug between his fingers. “When you called and told me you needed my help with something, I thought you meant killing a spider in the bathroom.”
“Last time we found a spider, I had to kill it.”
“That’s completely beside the point. I didn’t expect you to need me to run around in the forest for hours.”
“I needed for us to look like authentic campers. If the…box fell into the wrong hands it could have devastating consequences.”
“Like you losing your job?”
“Among others.” Kelly paused for a moment and pulled a device out of her pocket. It looks like a custom cell phone, bigger than normal and with numerous small attachments. A few deft taps from the twenty-five year old woman and the device sprang to life, lighting up and flipping frantically through a number of screens before settling on the image of a map with two small blinking dots.She looked it over for a few moments and then at her surroundings. “We are a few hundreds meters from the box now.”
“Holy crap, where did you get that?”
“It belongs to my company.” Kelly started walking, snapping the device into a clip at her belt. As she raised her shirt, the grip of a handgun came into view momentarily, and Ralph’s eyes went wide.
“I’m starting to think you don’t really work for a bank.”
“I never said I did.”
“Maybe a little. But even then it was with your best interest in mind.”
“You don’t want me to know what you really do?”
“I don’t like not knowing what’s going on, especially when there’s a chance I’ll get shot.”
“The more you talk, the better your chances are.”
“Point taken. But I’ll take that as a promise that you will tell me—”
“Shh,” Kelly whispered, dropping into a crouch.Ralph moved to do the same, shedding the backpack and getting low to the ground. He looked around for a moment, then realized that Kelly had her gun out.A long uncomfortable moment passed.
There was no immediate reply, then Kelly slowly reached down to her hip and flicked a button on the device, pulling a small piece loose and looking it over. “Here,” she said, handing the 9mm Glock to Ralph. “Keep lookout. Someone is following us.”
“Just keep your eyes on the surroundings.” Kelly unhooked the device from her belt and held it up for inspection. “I’ve wanted to try this out for a few months, but never got the opportunity.” She pressed a few buttons on the thin tube and then looked up at Ralph, who instantly scrambled back a few steps.
“Don’t worry, my eyes are fine. I’m just calibrating them. I need my accuracy to be perfect.”
“You might have to explain a little better than that.”
Kelly held the thin tube up and pointed to a small ridge on the side, with a small black dot at the tip. “I suppose it won’t hurt if you know more. The tube itself is a rifled barrel with three bullets, all keyed to an electronic firing system modeled after metal storm. The camera broadcasts the image to the device, and the device translates it and broadcasts it to my eyes.”
“The lenses. I’m wearing contact lenses with microfilm wires. They are a prototype, one of three in use. The fourth is in the box we are getting back, which is supposed to be a military test subject to put them into mass production. The wires are thin enough that they can’t be seen normally, but they can display images.”
“So…this is your job?”
“I work for a branch of Alscort, a company in Norway that is developing new technology. They think a rival company is trying to steal the lenses. I’m who they send to keep that from happening.” Kelly held up the thin barrel and slid it into the niche of a nearby tree, following its trajectory to see what kind of line of sight it would have. “It’s a prototype, and no one knows what features the military will be interested in purchasing, so it’s not versatile. But for now it makes a fantastic camera.”
“So you are watching with a screen over your eyes?”
“It is built essentially as a computer, and completely immersive. Watch this.”
Kelly flipped a button on the side of the device in her pocket and her eyes lit up again. “Right now, I see a number pad floating in the air in front of me.” Ralph watched as she began tapping the air in front of her. “There. I just called you.” Ralph’s phone began to ring.
“How did you…?”
“I told you, it’s completely immersive.”
The sound of a gunshot rang through the forest, and both dropped to the ground, looking around. “Did you get hit?” Kelly asked, reaching out to Ralph.
“Huh…what…no…I don’t think so…”
“Guess they know we are here. Stay calm, Ralph.”Kelly gently took the pistol from Ralph’s hand and crawled around the side of the tree. Ralph crawled slowly after her, breathing heavily and looking terrified. Kelly snapped the device back onto her belt and pressed a button, bringing the image back to her eyes from the barrel. Closing her eyes, she focused on the image from the camera and watched the forest directly behind them. “Three people, about eighty yards away. Not in accuracy range yet.”
“What do we do?”
“Run,” Kelly said quickly, taking off frantically into the woods away from the men. Caught off guard, Ralph didn’t immediately follow. Shots rang out all around, smashing into the tree and nearby area, forcing Ralph to duck back behind the tree and watch as Kelly disappeared into the distance. There was a good deal of yelling from behind him, and he sunk lower and started panting as the voices got closer.
“Come out with your hands where we can see them, and don’t try anything funny,” a man shouted.
“Okay, okay. I’m coming out. I don’t have a weapon or anything,” Ralph said, standing up and stepping around the tree into view. He held his hands in front of him and tried to keep his legs steady. All three men had guns leveled at him and masks covering their faces.
“Who are you, and what are you doing here?”
“My name is Ralph Tomlinson, and I’m a Nurse Practitioner at Hellingsburg hospital. I’m not exactly sure why the hell I’m out here.”
“The young woman you were with?”
“I think she went that way.”
The man stared at Ralph for a long moment, then spoke slowly.“I know she went that way. I watched her. I want to know who she is and why she is here.”
“I honestly don’t know. I’m just an authentic hiker and camper who—”
“Damnit,” the man interrupted, lowering his gun and nodding at the other two men. One stepped forward and pulled a twist tie out of his pocket. “We need to find her, then we’ll come back and get whatever information we need from him.”
“Hands behind your back, princess,” the man said.Ralph obliged and his hands were quickly bound. The man clipped a small device to the band and patted Ralph on the shoulder. “The ties aren’t that hard to break, but if you do manage to snap it, there will be a small explosion, just big enough to remove your arms at the elbows.”
“Where was she heading?” the first man asked.
“I don’t know. Here, I guess, she was looking for something and she said that this was where it was supposed to be.”
“Are you working with her?”
“What? I…no…I told you, I’m a nurse for the hospital.I clean up after people and help move fat people from one bed to another. I have no idea what’s going on.”
“Spread out,” the first one said. “You check the north side and I’ll go east. Dustin, you stay near the entrance and make sure no one goes in or out. If she doesn’t already know where the hideout is, don’t give it away.”
“Sir, you said my name, and now he knows—”
“He doesn’t know anything, and the moment I think he might be able to cause problems for us, I’ll put a bullet in the side of his skull. Now do what I tell you and watch the damn door. We need to find this girl.”
The men started splitting up quickly, leaving Ralph alone in the forest next to the tree. A long moment passed and then Ralph heard a small clicking sound next to his shoulder, followed by Kelly’s tinny voice. “Hey hon, it worked perfectly. They don’t think you are a threat at all.”
“Oh how encouraging. How the hell are you talking to me?”
“I sewed a small speaker and microphone in your coat’s shoulder. I knew you would never leave the house without it, and I wanted to make sure you weren’t cheating on me.”
“I’m liking this situation less and less.”
“I need you to do me a favor.”
“I’m kind of stuck at the moment.”
“Only your hands are stuck. I just need you to move the gun barrel for me.”
“Yeah, only both of my hands are stuck. Good thing I have the third one to—”
“Use your mouth.”
There was a very long pause as Ralph tried to absorb the statement. “I’m sorry, if I didn’t know any better I’d think you just asked me to—”
“Just put the barrel in your mouth, carry it about twenty feet south, and stick it into the nook of another tree. The alternative is waiting until they get back and kill you. Now stop being so homophobic and put it in your mouth.”
“It’s not homophobia. It’s paranoia about putting the business end of a gun in my mouth. What happens if it goes off?”
“You shouldn’t be talking to me about my gun going off early, Ralph.”
“That’s not funny. That’s really not.”
“I promise that nothing will happen. Even if it does, you wouldn’t feel it. Now hurry, we’re running out of time.”
With a long sigh, Ralph worked back to his feet and over to the tree where Kelly had stuck the barrel. With a grimace he wrapped his teeth around the tube and picked it up. There was a giggling from his shoulder. “I’m watching your throat in 3-D.” Shaking his head slowly, Ralph carried the device twenty feet south, and looked for a tree to hide it in. After a moment, he spotted a suitable nook and made his way over to it.
“Hey!” a voice shouted behind him. Ralph froze, about three feet from the nook.
“Hurry, put it in place,” Kelly said.
“What the hell do you think you are doing? Did we tell you that you could move?”
Ralph heard footsteps coming up behind him.“The nook, hurry. And duck,” Kelly said.In a panic, Ralph stepped forward and wedged the tube in place, then ducked to the ground and spun. One of the masked men was standing behind him about ten feet away, raising a gun and aiming it at Ralph. Ralph tried to murmur some sort of apology and explanation, averting his eyes and cringing. Gunshots went off, and Ralph was certain he was dead. He didn’t feel anything, but he knew that the pain wouldn’t register until the nerve endings had caught up to the speed of the bullet.
A few moments passed and still no pain.Finally, still cringing, he felt someone grab his shoulders and pull him to his feet. Opening his eyes, he saw Kelly standing there. She spun him around and unclipped the small explosive, then cut the binds holding his arms. He rubbed his wrists, then grabbed her and hugged her.
“I didn’t get shot!”
“Uh…I thought that was obvious. He did.” Kelly nodded to the ground nearby at the body laying there. She walked over and picked up the gun, ignoring the stunned look on Ralph’s face.
“Let’s pretend that ‘no’ is the answer and not go down that road.”
“You used the gun-barrel-thing to shoot him?”
“Yes. The foliage isn’t thick enough to sneak up on an alert guard, so I had to improvise.”
“You shot him.”
“I didn’t have a lot of choice.”
“You just killed someone…”
“You said you wanted to learn more about me.”
“I was thinking maybe you liked dogs. This is…crazy.”
“Just take a few deep breaths and calm down, Ralph.”
“The barrel. Why did you need me to move it?”
Kelly hesitates. “I can’t move or aim the barrel, so I needed him in position in front of it, and if he was moving closer to kill you...it seemed logical—”
“I was bait?”
“I’ll make it up to you. I promise. For now, I need to disappear for a few moments.” Kelly started to walk away.
Ralph stood there with a stunned look, finally shaking it off as she disappeared from sight. “But what if he had come at me from an angle?” Ralph shouted after her. There was no reply, and reluctantly he walked back to the camping gear and sat down next to the tree. After a few minutes sitting there he heard the sound of a cough in the distance and jumped to his feet. He looked around at the surrounding trees but didn’t see anything. Finally, he heard the coughing sound again, more pronounced and in the distance to his left.
An internal debate ensued in which his curiosity finally won out, and he made his way slowly in the direction of the cough.About eighty feet away, he came upon one of the masked men, lying on the ground in a pool of blood. The man coughed again, and Ralph saw a fine mist of red leave his lips. Ralph moved a little closer, and the bleeding man managed to shift his head far enough to the side to see him. Ralph couldn’t be sure, but he thought the man chuckled; it was difficult to tell: the sound could have been another cough.
“You…are a coward…”
“I’m not going to debate that. I…I’m sorry…that’s a lot of blood and I don’t think I could possibly close the wound…”
“The whore…is a warmonger…seeking to sell technology to the…highest… bidder. She would…rather people die defenseless…then everyone had the technology.”
“Everyone could have it just fine, if everyone could afford to pay for it,” the voice came from Ralph’s left. “All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players. I’m just better at acting then you are.”
Kelly raised her gun and fired off one quick round.Ralph turned to the side and saw her standing there with a box in her hand, typing numbers on a keypad on its side.“They hadn’t managed to hack it yet, and the box itself has a tracking system.” She looked up at Ralph as she opened the box. “For future reference, make getting the goods out of the box your first priority if you want to steal new technology. The box is always being tracked.”
“You terrify me now. I’ve seen a lot of people die on operating tables and during codes, but this is something else entirely. Remind me to never keep secrets from me.”
“You couldn’t if you wanted to. Here, put these on. Wash your hands and be extremely careful. They are worth several million dollars in development. I need to make sure they still work.”
She handed him the container. Inside he saw a sealed contact lens box and a device similar to the one Kelly had strapped to her hip. He carried it back to the camping bag and used the water in the canteen to wash his hands off. “You sure?”
“Just do it.”
As careful as possible, Ralph opened the packaging and gently fit the contacts into his eyes. “Everything is a little bit darker, but I can still see just fine.”
“It’s like wearing very light sunglasses. And watch this.” Kelly took the device out of Ralph’s box and flipped it on.
“Woah,” Ralph said. Images flashed to life all around him, and he saw numbers and images appear and disappear.
“Touch the floating things you see to calibrate.”Ralph began touching the spots as they flashed up.
“This is incredible. I can’t wait until we have this kind of technology for video games.”
“A few years, at the most. Once the development costs are paid, they aren’t that expensive to replicate. Soon businesses will broadcast images and interactive displays in stores for customers.”
“Insane.” Ralph finished calibrating and it went dark. “I just found out my girlfriend is a sociopath and got to try out new technology that people are willing to die for. Don’t we need to…tell someone we found this?”
“We already did. The moment I activated it the tracking device contacted the network grid.Someone will be by to pick us up in less than an hour.”
“Can I keep these?”
“I doubt it, but I’ll put in a requisition and see if I can get some for you in the future. So, what do you think?”
“About the contacts?”
“About my job.”
Ralph paused. “I may come to regret it, but I think I need to go wedding ring shopping.”