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Over the Top Secret - Chapter 8
AKA Code Red
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Start at the beginning (Prologue - AKA Mission Report)
Read the previous chapter (Chapter 7 - AKA Test is My Middle Name)
Read the next chapter (Chapter 9 - AKA T.O.P.S.E.C.R.E.T.)
Eric grabs my upper arm, pulling me along as Simon scurries behind us down the hallway. The alarm continues blaring, bouncing off the white-tiled walls, and I realize I’m traveling deeper into the heart of T.O.P.S.E.C.R.E.T. headquarters.
The walls rise high above us, turning into large clear windows that connect with the tiled ceiling. I witness the last few seconds of natural light beaming down into the cavernous hallway before metallic gates roll down behind them with a CLANG, shutting out the sunlight.
The bright white fluorescent lights turn red, accented by a flashing strobe. More metallic gates slide to the ground, sealing shut a seemingly random selection of rooms as we race past.
We squeeze through a hectic swarm of men and women (I assume they’re other agents) dressed in all different kinds of gear. Some of them sport suits and dresses, while others are totally decked out in tactical fighting gear— black on black on black with bulletproof vests, guns, and knife handles sticking out of every pocket. A woman waddling around in scuba gear bumps into Eric. “’Scuse me, bub!” she says through her snorkel.
“Watch it, Denise!” Eric shouts back. He grabs my arm and yanks me past another onslaught of agents scurrying about in skydiving parachutes, safari garb, hiking gear, you name it. The farther down the hall we get, the more interesting the outfits become until we reach an opening that appears to be the entrance to a lobby.
Large metallic signs hang from the ceiling, etched with the same thin, modern font as was on The McGuffin in the plane. The signs direct us to multiple different offshoots connecting to the main lobby. “Interrogation Rooms A through G,” “Weapons Department,” “Forensics and Analytics,” “Chemical Warfare,” “Tactical Training,” “Simulation Decks 1-15”.
This place feels like a busy international airport, full of worldly travelers running to make their flights, minus the deafening “CODE RED” alarm that paints the whole place red with chaos. It’s overwhelming and energizing and mostly relieving because, as it would seem, Eric and Simon are not crazy kidnappers trying to grow an ear on my back. I only make out half of the labels before Eric jerks me around a corner into the “Hall of Elevators.”
The tiled walls stretch on for what looks like a whole mile. Our footsteps echo off the reflective surfaces around us as we continue racing down the seemingly endless hallway. I wonder why they need so many elevators.
“CODE RED, CODE RED,” the booming voice continues. We reach a wall between two elevators. Eric presses a panel in the tile. It flips over, revealing a hidden camera. He leans in, and a blue laser scans his eye. “Eric Shaw,” he says. The laser turns green. “Access granted,” the computer replies. To the right, an elevator door opens.
“Hurry,” Eric says, and we all shuffle inside.
Eric pulls out a laminated card from his jacket pocket and scans it on a little black square in the wall. The elevator lurches downward.
“Where are we going? What’s happening?” I say, trying to catch my breath. The alarm repeats itself right when I open my mouth, drowning out my questions.
The elevator stops, and the metallic doors open, revealing what looks like a half-floor. We have to duck when we step out into the small room to not hit our heads on the low popcorn ceiling.
It looks like an office building from the eighties. Cheap carpet spreads the length of the floor, grossly lit by flickering fluorescent lighting. A half-full water cooler bubbles in the corner next to a side table with a fake plant collecting dust. A single metallic desk sits in the center, adorned with a small “T.O.P.S.E.C.R.E.T. DIRECTOR OF OPERATIONS” nameplate. I wonder why The Director of Operations would tuck herself in such a cramped space between floors.
We hurry toward her, all hunched over.
“Then get your best men on it and find—” the alarm cuts her off. “Did you hear me?” She has one hand in her free ear, blocking out the “CODE RED” voice, and the other holding a dusty rose-colored desk phone. “Just keep working until you track down the source.” She hangs up the phone, then gives a little jump when she sees us approaching, hunched over like a bunch of Igors.
“What are you three doing here?” she yells over the alarm. “She shouldn’t be in here!”
“The McGuffin Backup has been hacked!” shouts Eric, still holding my arm. I try to shimmy out of his tight grip, but he doesn’t budge.
“Yes, I know!” she says, eyes narrowed and darting between the three of us. “Why did you bring her to me?” She nods in my direction.
“The McGuffin is stuck in her brain,” says Eric.
“Well, get it out,” The Director says.
Simon steps forward. “Uh, we can’t do that, ma’am. Not without—” he glances at me and then stage whispers, “—killing her.” He’s wringing his hands again. The Director looks between the three of us, incredulous. “We came to ask what we should do with her, now that there’s a Code Red and everything—”
Eric interrupts him, stepping in front of the two of us. He finally lets me out of his grip. “Director, you already know what to do. Send me after the hacker! We need to retrieve The Backup.”
“That’s exactly what I would do,” she says, “if our team had any idea where the hacker came from, or where the data was transferred to. This hack is untraceable!” She rubs her temples, glaring at the ceiling as the alarm continues to remind us that we are, indeed, still experiencing a “CODE RED.” “I’d say we should consult The McGuffin, but apparently that’s not an option.” They all turn to me.
I grimace. “What are you going to do with me?”
Eric takes another hunched step toward the edge of The Director’s desk. “Clearly, she can’t go walking around with all that information in her head.”
“We must continue my testing!” says Simon. He scurries forward, wedging himself in the conversation. “I’ve only just scratched the surface—” he continues, and their arguing blends in with the cacophony of noises around us.
As they continue arguing about my fate, I notice something on The Director’s computer screen: a bunch of little brown dots appear, forming a grid.
I’m drawn to it for some reason, highly intrigued by the little brown digital mouse that pops up in the corner. It follows the dots round and round until it reaches the center of the screen where a small piece of cheese awaits. I step closer to the screen, somehow pulled toward it like a magnet. The little mouse bites the cheese and then—BAM!
A white flash takes over my vision, leaving behind a silhouette of a rat with bared teeth. It vanishes as quickly as it appeared, replaced by a succession of rapidly flashing images of what look like handmade pieces of machinery; thick metal welded into an assortment of oddball household objects like fishing hooks, paper clips, and pens. More seemingly home-made doodads flash by, too fast for me to register what they are until a lacrosse helmet covered in different colored wires stands out from the rest. Straws and frayed copper jut out the edges of the mask, making it seem both like a child’s plaything and a deadly device.
The images whirl away, and suddenly I’m looking up at a white sign with pink cursive words that spell out “Tout le Monde.” The image is replaced by little cartoon planet Earth with every significant iconic building from around the world— the Eiffel Tower, the statue of liberty, the pyramids of Giza, the Great Wall, etc. — protruding all around it.
Earth disappears, and now I’m sitting in a small cafe with little pink napkins and curly metal seats, right next to a river. I smell butter and sugar, bring a cup of coffee to my lips, and realize with an odd tingling sensation at the back of my head that the blurry building in my peripheral vision is the Eiffel Tower. The memory-like clip swirls and disappears, replaced by the sight of a scrawny, bald, white man.
He’s shrouded in shadows, nibbling on a piece of cheese in a mysterious, cold, eerie place that sends goosebumps down my spine. The rush of water fills my ears until white noise drowns everything out. The man’s figure morphs into the shape of the rat silhouette from before, and a throaty, high-pitched laugh echoes between my ears. Then everything turns black.
I gasp for air and crash into the carpeted floor, already overcome by an onslaught of allergic convulsions. My twitching body knocks into The Director’s desk. The computer screen dies down to blackness, leaving behind the symbol of a silhouetted rat baring its teeth— the same as the first image that just flashed in my mind.
Oh snap. I can feel the sweats coming on again. I take deep breaths, trying to make sense of it all.
Suddenly, the lights go back to normal. The incessant “CODE RED” voice ceases to exist, leaving our ears ringing.
“Jesus,” Eric says, shaking a finger in his ear.
The Director notices me convulsing on the floor. “Christ!” She jumps in her seat. “What’s wrong with her? What just happened?”
Eric leans over the edge of her desk, acknowledging my new position on the floor. “She convulses when a message has been sent to her brain.” He waves it off like I’m just a drama queen. “Can we get back to the more pressing issue at hand? We need to find The Backup.”
Simon gasps. “You’re right, Eric!”
“I know,” Eric says. “I’ll head to the Bahamas first. I have a feeling it’s in the Bahamas.”
Simon shakes his head. “No—you’re right that a message was sent to her brain.” Simon visibly fights down the urge to do a happy dance. “But from who?”
The Director lightly touches my forehead with her cold, bony fingers, then quickly recoils as if from the sizzling surface of a hot stove.
“If you didn’t send it, Simon, who did?” The Director asks.
“Perhaps it was The McGuffin,” he squeals excitedly. They all turn to me. “What did you see, Julie? What was the message?”
Stars still dancing in my vision and unable to speak just yet, I shake my head.
The Director fills a glass of water and hands it to me, along with a blanket from her bottom drawer. Who keeps blankets in their drawers? I carefully drape it over my shoulders and hug it close, comforted by its scratchy warmth. I didn’t even realize I was shaking.
“Poor girl,” The Director mutters. Eric makes a pfft sound at her comment, and she tells him to get off her desk. The three others stand awkwardly over me, waiting for my account of the vision.
I take a deep breath and recount everything, even down to the pink napkins and the cold, creepiness of the little bald man’s laughs. They listen to every word. When I’m done, they cross their arms, put their hands on their hips, and scratch their chins, silently assessing my story.
“The McGuffin was talking to you,” Simon says in wonder. He turns to The Director and Eric. “Maybe it knows we require its help and is trying to communicate.”
My stomach chooses this moment to growl like a hungry kitchen garbage disposal. Oh, something inside me is trying to communicate, alright. But I’m not so sure it’s The McGuffin.
“What triggers these visions?” The Director asks, clasping her hands together on her desk. I notice her fingernails are bitten. Probably from dealing with Simon and Eric on the regular.
“We don’t know exactly,” Simon says.
“Care to elaborate?”
“We tried a few methods, but couldn’t access anything from The McGuffin’s historical logs, though we successfully activated it by sending messages of our own. She tends to interpret text as images.”
She arches an eyebrow. “You mean to tell me, you have exactly zero conclusive data on what you’ve done?”
“Something must have triggered it,” Eric says, blatantly ignoring her accusation. He stares at me as if he can intimidate The McGuffin into cooperating.
I absentmindedly look at the computer. The silhouetted rat is still there, taunting me with its bared teeth. “That did,” I say, nodding to the desktop. Everyone looks at the creepy rat. “I know it.”
“I hadn’t even noticed,” The Director says. She wheels her chair closer to the screen. “What is that symbol?” She taps the screen with her bitten nail, spreading germs without a care and adding to my growing anxiety. I bite my lip in an attempt to remain calm. “We must have encountered it before. Eric, do you remember it?”
He squints at it for a moment, then shakes his head. “No, I’ve never seen this before. I haven’t been on any missions related to this image.”
Another moment passes. I can practically hear everyone’s gears turning. The Director removes her grey suit blazer and sits back in her chair, crossing her arms and looking off into the distance contemplatively. Tiny circles of dark purple spread from the underarms of her shirt, accentuating the bags under her eyes. She needs a nap more than I do.
“Too bad we can’t just ask The McGuffin what it said,” says Eric. He shakes his head at me like it’s my fault. Then I remember, it technically is.
“But it did tell her something,” Simon says, back to his enthusiastic self.
“Looks like Project McGuffin does work, after all.” The Director gives Simon a nod of approval. He smiles proudly.
“But it doesn’t mean anything,” Eric interrupts their little moment. “We still can’t understand the message, and I don’t know where to go to find the bad guy.”
“You said you saw the Eiffel tower in your vision, right?” The Director looks at me expectantly.
“Yes, I think so.” I nod. “But it was blurry. Now I’m second-guessing it.”
“There’s no room for second-guessing,” she says.
My shoulders grow heavy with pressure. The Director’s intent gaze tells me this is no joke. Something massive is at stake here, and I’m right in the middle of it.
What have I gotten myself into?
“Then… yes, I did see the Eiffel tower.”
“If The McGuffin really is speaking to us, I think our hacker might be in Paris,” she determines.
“We don’t know that for sure,” says Eric, frustrated. “It could be the Bahamas.”
“We do know one thing,” Simon says with knowing eyes. We all look at him. “Julie definitely can’t go home now.”
The Director sighs. “You’re right. At least not until we retrieve The McGuffin backup hard drive.”
“Damn.” Eric kicks the floor like a child.
“What do you mean? Why not?” I ask, but a knowing dread has already started creeping up my spine.
“You can’t leave because,” Simon stifles an excited giggle, “The McGuffin needs you in the field.”