yeah, you're gonna crush me down now
r | no warnings apply
He shifted his weight from one foot to the other as the elevator descended. He pulled out his phone and checked the text message from Diana again.
Can you stop for pizza on the way home? No pineapple.
Cryptic text messages and encoded emails were commonplace for them now. 'Stop for pizza' meant 'come to our headquarters' and 'no pineapple' meant 'it's not an emergency, so please don't worry'. While he was looking at the screen, a new message popped up: I'm in the shower.
Which meant she was in the command center.
He exited the elevator and walked down the corridors, almost on autopilot. The red light was on, but he typed in his access code anyway and the door slid open. Diana was standing - she never sat when she was in the command center - with her hands clasped together and under her chin. Nona and Ennea were manning the computers, which meant -
"They're almost there," Ennea said, as she handed Sigma a headset.
The image on the screen was clearly from a button cam, and since he had just gotten a glimpse of Clover - clad in business attire and a black wig - that meant Alice was wearing it.
He would never admit it to Akane, but he thought joint operations with the SOIS ran more smoothly than the ones they did on their own. Both Akane and Alice preferred to plan things out to the nth degree, but Akane was more likely to go off-script than Alice was.
Standing next to his wife, he covered his microphone and whispered in the ear that wasn't covered by the earpiece of her headset. "What's going on?"
She held up a finger and mouthed 'later'.
Onscreen, Alice knocked on a door and cleared her throat. The door opened almost immediately. A disheveled man had his arm around a sobbing woman.
"That was fast, thank fucking god," the man said. "We just called 911 ten minutes ago."
Diana gasped and covered her hand with her mouth. Nona and Ennea were frantically tapping away.
"Mr. and Mrs. Laraine? Please start at the beginning."
This didn't seem to be going according to plan, but Alice was taking it in stride. Nona snapped her fingers to get Diana's attention and muted the signal from Alice before playing an audio file.
"Nine-one-one, what is your emergency?"
"We need police right away!" He recognized the voice as the man Alice had just met - Mr. Laraine, apparently. "My daughter, our daughter, Rachel, is gone. She's been kidnapped!"
The woman, Mrs. Laraine, was screaming in the background. "She was with a friend who saw her get into a stranger's car. You have to find her!"
"Sir, is there any chance she ran away?"
Diana nodded, apparently to indicate she'd heard enough. Nona stopped the 911 tape and reinstated the audio from Alice.
"No, sir, we're not local police. The FBI has jurisdiction over kidnapping, if that is indeed what this is."
"Got it," the twins said in unison. Nona took off her headset and started making a phone call.
"That was Alice letting them know that they need to establish bona fides for her and Clover as FBI agents, while also alerting the local FBI office that the SOIS is taking over the investigation," Diana explained, without taking her eyes off the screen.
He remembered when she didn't even know what a 'handler' was, but here she was, helping to run an operation like it was second nature. As much as he hated her being this close to the danger, there was a touch of pride in his gaze.
"Now, Rachel is adopted, is that correct?"
Alice's question enraged the parents. The dad, who was pacing in their living room, approached her, getting so close that Sigma could practically see his nose hairs on Alice's button camera.
"That doesn't have a fucking thing to do with anything!"
"But it might," Clover interjected. "Maybe her real parents -"
Sigma cringed as Diana said, "Oh, no."
"We are her real parents!" Mr. Laraine shouted into Clover's face.
Alice put a hand on his chest and gently pushed him back. "My colleague merely meant to inquire as to the possibility that Rachel's biological parents may have kidnapped her."
"We don't know who those people are," Mrs. Laraine said. "She was dropped off at a church under the safe haven law."
"Local LEOs are there," Ennea announced.
"Some officers from the Eugene Police Department will be in shortly to take your statements," Alice said. "We have to return to the field office, but I want you to call me if you think of anything else or have any questions. My number is ... ahem ..."
"Oh, sorry, Alice," Nona said. "503-244-4282 is redirected to your cell."
She repeated the number to the parents and again to the police officers, smoothly weaving a completely bullshit story about how they happened to be in the area to explain their ridiculously quick apparent response time. The cops seemed to buy it.
"Wait, we need to put the parents in protective custody," Diana protested as Alice and Clover left. "Where are you guys going?"
As the two SOIS agents walked to their car and drove off, they were almost completely silent, except for Alice muttering, "I hate having to pretend to be the fucking feebs."
Diana became more agitated, until Ennea got up and took her by the shoulders.
"I know you don't want to hear this, but we can't."
"What are you talking about?"
The screen went dark as Alice deactivated the button cam. After a few seconds, it came back online with a view of the inside of their vehicle. Clover was behind the wheel and Alice was looking directly into the camera, not looking pleased.
"I was really hoping this would have been a waste of my time, Diana."
"Why did you just leave them behind? You need to put them in a safe house."
"That would be the worst thing to do," Clover said. "Even I understand that. If you're right, someone's going to come to kill them. We need to have them under surveillance, and I promise you, Alice is working on doing that right now, but if we put them in a safe house, we lose our chance to catch one of these 'Cortex' people."
She toyed with her necklace as she listened to Clover. Alice's thumbs were flying over her cell phone, and Sigma knew she was making arrangements for SOIS agents to descend on the house. Diana had an expression on her face he had seen too many times before - the feeling of knowing something is the right thing to do, but hating having to do it.
"Okay, but then we have to get this girl's name and picture out to the media. We have to -"
"We have to let the police take care of this like any other kidnapping," Alice said, cutting Diana off. "If you're right, we can't alert them that we're on to them."
Alice ended the transmission and Diana glared at the screen in frustration for a moment before sighing and covering her face with her hands. He put his arm around her and kissed the top of her head.
"They're going to do their best with ... whatever it is that's going on here." He knew better than to say everything would be okay, but she had been overly emotional lately and he didn't want her to break down again.
Last night, she had literally cried over spilled milk, and only got more upset when he saw the humor in it.
"Why don't we get out of here and you can help me catch up?"
She nodded, then took off her headset and stared at it in her hands. "Do you really think this is as secure as Akane says it is? Do you really think the signals in these can't be hacked? They don't look any more technically advanced than things I've seen in old movies."
The twins took no offense.
"It's completely secure," Nona said.
"Unless someone solves P versus NP," Ennea continued.
"Which is not going to happen," they finished in unison.
Diana couldn't even give them a small smile. Whatever had just happened, she was distressed, and it was more than just being upset over a missing child.
They left the command center and went to the lounge. The facility had two conference rooms, and when Akane had something to present to the group, they often met in there. Any other time, they assembled in the lounge. It had more comfortable chairs, computers, a large enough display, and of course, alcohol.
She took a tablet off the table and sat down on the sofa, logging into the network while he poured vodka and orange juice into a glass for him and ginger ale into one for her.
"Sometimes I wonder if Phi and Delta would have been like that, if we'd been able to raise them together. Finishing each other's sentences, talking in harmony."
"Maybe," he said as he sat down next to her. She took a sip of the ginger ale as she finished pulling up her research.
"So this girl, is she one of the clones?"
"They're not clones."
She put a mosaic of pictures on the display. Children, all appearing to be in their early teens. There were boys and girls, a variety of hair colors and skin tones.
"These are some of the five hundred and twelve children that we identified from the adoption files," she continued. "They all share a sequence in their DNA, but they're clearly not clones."
It was one thing to see their names in the files; it was another to have their faces up on the screen.
"Genetically modified humans?"
She nodded. "My first thought was to see if they had any other genetic similarities in common, but I started wondering what had happened to them."
One of the pictures - a young boy with olive skin and dark brown hair - was enlarged to take up half the screen. A police report appeared next to it, and what it said didn't really surprise him.
"You're telling me all of these kids were kidnapped."
"Not all the kids we identified. It seems they ... whoever is doing this only takes them around age twelve. But there's something else," she said softly. She scrolled down the police report and highlighted a paragraph.
"Shit. All ... all of these kids - someone killed their parents?"
She brought up another police report, then another, and another. "The crimes aren't identical. There are kids who were taken from their homes. Others from school. Some from public places. Sometimes the parents are killed at the same time the kids are taken, but sometimes it happens days, weeks, or even months later. Parents have been shot, stabbed, beaten ... killed in basically every horrible way someone could kill another person. Then there are deaths that aren't even labeled murders. Car accidents or suicides."
"I was going to ask if any law enforcement agency had put this together..."
Diana shook her head. "And it might be more children than just the five hundred and twelve. Not all countries keep genetic data on adoptions, or at least not on a server that Nona or Ennea could breach. But Phi and Clover ran searches on Interpol for adopted children who were kidnapped and whose parents died."
A map appeared on the display, with red dots popping up ... well, fucking everywhere, except Antarctica.
"We can't be completely sure -"
"Just ... Diana, how many?"
"They identified another possible eighteen hundred forty-two cases."
She closed out all the windows, turned off the tablet, and put her hands in her lap. "There are about two hundred children with the genetic sequence who haven't been kidnapped, probably because they're too young for ... whatever they're doing with them. Rachel was one of them, but she turns twelve in three weeks, so ..."
He pulled her close and let her cry against his chest. He didn't need her to explain anything else. She had told Alice about her worries and Alice had taken Clover out there to possibly prevent a kidnapping. Only to find out that they were too late. Now another child was in the hands of these fuckers and two parents might end up losing their lives.
They stayed like that for almost twenty minutes before she sniffled and sat up, wiping her eyes. "So, how was your day?"
He smiled, but his nervousness from earlier returned. "This probably isn't the best time, but -"
"You gave your two weeks' notice."
She didn't look upset. Not about that, at least. There wasn't really a reason to be. They were well-compensated for their work with the Crash Keys, on top of Diana's income from nursing. They were financially stable. But this had seemed like his dream job, and it was disappointing to be so disenchanted with it only one month in. They may have been a couple of espers who could SHIFT into different timelines and were currently working to save the world from a fucking lunatic, but was it so much to ask to have something in his life be normal?
"You weren't happy. We're lucky enough to be in a situation where you can wait for a job that makes you happy."
He placed a hand on her stomach, even though it was too early to feel the baby move. "When my boss told me I couldn't take off to go to your appointment, that was the last straw."
"It was fine. Everything is fine. She's fine."
"I thought we were going to be surprised!"
"The doctor didn't tell me. It's just a feeling I have." She put her hand over his. "That means you need to start thinking about baby names, though. We can hardly name this one Phi, too."
"Why not? Phi the Second, Phi the Third, let's name them all Phi."
She laughed, but it only lit up her face for a moment. "Someone else's baby is in danger right now."
"Yeah, but we know that, and you know Alice is going to have her best people on this. We might be able to save her, and maybe she'll be the key to us catching this bastard."
There was hope in her eyes. All they had been through, all she had seen, she still had hope.
He clung to that, in the times when he had none.