An hour ago he never would have believed it. Thirty minutes past and he'd have said it was impossible. Click back ten minutes and he'd have denied it emphatically. Now... It was true. He would rather have been back on that face-fucking frozen wasteland of a planet with Oracle a mute, glowing target behind him and a platoon of Conundrum reps between them and safety, than here.
He resisted the urge to scratch at the edge of the filter mask where it pressed into his cheekbone, and his forehead, and his chin. Only the danger of breaking quarantine and getting stuck here for who knew how long stopped him ripping the fucking thing off. He hated the masks with a fiery passion. If he were to list the top ten things he hated most, those masks would make the top three. The Conundrum. The war. The masks. Rice pudding. Bureaucrats. … Yep. Solidly in at number three.
His team on this op was small. It was an infiltrate-and-eliminate job, and its success rode on surprise. That meant no contact with Scotland Yard or Baker Street and a minimum squad--plus one. The fact that he had a civilian on the mission chapped his balls, but he understood the reasoning behind it. In the end, the Tops had given him the right of the call and he'd called it. So, against his tactical judgment but in line with what he knew was necessary, he'd brought Doc with him. He only hoped the man didn't get himself killed. It would suck to lose the only boffin he genuinely liked and trusted.
First things first, get to Hooper where she was hiding, and get an update on the status of the reps and the hostages. They'd been unable to contact Lost Comet Base since she'd discontinued transmission, and a sit-rep was his immediate concern.
At least they knew the number of Conundrum reps on-site hadn't gone up. No enemy ships had delivered additional troops, and even fabricated as they were, they couldn't duplicate in the field.
There was one positive.
And from what Boffin Hooper had communicated, none of the base personnel had been killed in the occupation.
There was another.
Lestrade wondered if it was only bad things that supposedly came in threes, because he sure would have liked a third good thing to hang on to. Not that the shit storms in his life had ever held themselves to a particular number, so really the whole "rule of three" thing was pointless nonsense and why was he wasting his time on it?
This was the last corridor they had to traverse to reach where Hooper was, he hoped, still safely hidden. They'd managed to avoid discovery so far, but he wasn't banking on their luck holding much longer. He signalled Donovan to cover them as he took point. He did a visual check and then, head down and weapon ready, he raced for the next point of cover.
When he was clear, he took over the cover position and signalled the come-ahead.
Doc came first, moving more like a soldier than a boffin and reminding Lestrade that he had been in this war just as long as any of them, even serving time in the field in the early days. Next were the two slingers loaned from Scotland Yard's force, career infantry and so far showing every bit of it. The last was Donovan, always reliable, if not always likeable. He was glad to have her gun at his back.
This was the trickiest moment. Hooper didn't know that they were on their way. According to what Doc told him, she could only know that her transmission had been received. She wouldn't know by whom or whether that person had then been able to download it, or even if the recipient was still sane enough to use the data. That last bit had been a hell of a revelation. Apparently he'd been lucky to come out of his upload with his wits intact. According to Oracle, if he and Doc hadn't been there to talk him through it, Lestrade could very well have ended up a voiceless vegetable, too overloaded to function. He had a bone to pick with Boffin Hooper over that, but it would have to wait.
Assuming they survived this op, of course. For all he knew, Hooper was armed behind that door. Ready to take out any threat that might discover her hiding place. He shuddered at the thought. Armed boffins were a menace to themselves and anyone within firing range. He sincerely hoped she had a cooler head than that.
Ah well. There was no way past it but through. He made deliberate eye-contact with each of his team in turn, and then held up one fist. He uncurled his thumb. One.
Doc went perfectly still.
Index finger. Two.
Donovan braced herself and raised her weapon in case a nasty surprise awaited them.
Middle finger. Three.
He cracked the panel and forced it open as the slingers went in low and Donovan covered high. No gunfire mowed them down. No booby traps blew them to smithereens. They were met only by the wide, shocked gaze of a thin young woman with a ponytail and lab coat.
"Boffin Hooper?" asked Lestrade, his voice made hollow and plastic by the mask. She nodded. "I'm Commander Lestrade from the cruiser Scotland Yard. I got your message. You're all right?"
"Yes, okay. I'm glad to see you." Her eyes landed on Doc and she smiled. "John! Thank the stars you're here!"
The two of them promptly fell into boffin-speak and Lestrade tuned them out. They had a limited window of opportunity and they had only completed the first of their tasks. He looked around him. If it weren't for the obstruction of the damned filter mask, he'd have let out an appreciative whistle. Hooper had managed to cobble together a pretty solar setup in her hidey-hole. She'd cracked an access panel and wired into the base's computer network with little more than a screwdriver and cannibalized bits of ... balls only knew what scientific apparatus that had once been.
"Toast, can you get into her patch?"
Donovan holstered her firearm and dug into the array of wires and what, at best guess, might be an improvised keyboard interface of some kind. Soon she nodded. "Give me three minutes and I'll have what we need."
He left her to it. Nodding to the two slingers who guarded the door, he returned his attention to Doc and Hooper, hoping they'd reached some conclusion that would aid and inform the situation.
"What's the news, Doc?"
Doc shook the small tube of red liquid in his hand. He examined it as it turned viscous and lavender before he answered. "Good and bad."
Hooper pressed one hand against the opposite arm, holding down a small gauze pad. Lestrade had enough combat casualty care training to put two and two together. Blood sample. Test. Results.
"Right. Diagnosis confirmed. Non-deadly viral infection passed through the atmosphere. There's nothing we can do about the quarantine. It's a wait-it-out, no compromises situation."
"Air scrubbers were working on it," Hooper added. "But that power got re-routed when we were breached."
That meant they couldn't evacuate the base personnel, even if the opportunity presented itself. So, it was eliminate the Conundrum reps, hopefully before they could transmit news of the resistance back to the Nucleus. Otherwise the shit would become too deep even for him to dig out of--and Lestrade had the deserved reputation as the man to go to when you were deep in the shit and needed out.
It also meant they were stuck in these fucking masks for the duration of the op, and that they'd have to go through de-con when the got back to Scotland Yard.
Rapture, he thought dryly. "Okay. The good news?"
Hooper spoke up again. "The rest of the base personnel are all contained in the secondary storage bay on sub-deck gamma. They've managed to disable the exterior hatch subroutines and isolate the atmosphere controls."
Lestrade could see good and bad in that, but he took the positive where it was offered. In this case, that meant that innocent people wouldn't be caught in the possible--strike that, in the impending crossfire. Neither could the reps cut off their air supply nor depressurize the bay. And with the exterior hatch offline, the hostages couldn't be expelled into the vacuum outside the base. "Anything else?" he asked.
"I've got a number and a fix on the locations of the Conundrum reps," announced Donovan.
"Even better. Give them to me."
The planning session was, of necessity, brief. Their options and resources were severely limited. In a way, that made things easier.
This was when the one weakness of the Conundrum reps was truly useful to an assault force. They were a hive mind that lacked original thought. That meant that once they were locked into a command sequence, they stayed locked into it until the Nucleus sent new orders. And from what little Lestrade's team could determine given the current circumstances, the present complement of reps was on its own.
That would change eventually. Balls knew when.
The best option would be to hack their network, but no one had ever found a way in. Teams of wire-boffins had spent the duration of the war on the problem and so far had failed in every attempt. What had come out of all their attempts was knowledge of the reps' command structure. All it took was the destruction of the Field Leader to cause a cascade failure of any given platoon. The trick, of course, was identifying the FL. One rep was quite literally exactly like the next.
"All right. Doc, you're staying here with Hooper. Dodger will stay with you both for the duration." He looked to the female slinger. "Your number one goal is to keep them alive." Dodger nodded her understanding. "Good. You're on your own until you get the all-clear from Donovan or me."
Always practical, Doc asked, "What if we don't get an all-clear?"
"Then you can assume we've failed."
They all knew what that meant. Doc nodded solemnly and Hooper gave Lestrade a weak smile that he was sure was meant to be supportive. Dodger just looked stoic and checked the charge on her sidearm.
"Right. We'll keep radio silence until it's safe. We're lucky the damned reps haven't picked us up already."
"They don't register non-broadcast frequencies," said Hooper. "Not unless they're actually in the room with you. They have very poor real-time hearing, in fact."
Lestrade eyed her in astonishment. This was brand new information. "How do you know--? Never mind. I don't care how you found that out. We can use it. That's all that matters." He looked at his team of two and scratched absently at his cheek where it met the filter mask. The thing would drive him mad if this went on too long. All the more reason to finish the op and get back to the ship. "Time to go."
John started awake in the horrible hospital chair. His first thought was that Greg had finally woken and made some noise that had roused him. He pushed himself stiffly to his feet and went to check. No such luck. It seemed Greg had merely dislodged the nasal canula without regaining consciousness. John resettled the tube around Greg's ears and under his nose, checked the monitors, and straightened the blankets over him.
"You know," he said, pulling up his most matter-of-fact, this-is-how-it-is tone. "If you hate the tubes so much, all you have to do is wake up and I'll remove them. I promise."
There was no response. Not that John expected one. He sighed and sat down again. Sherlock would be back soon with his violin. If John was lucky, he'd bring tea, too.