A Little Knowledge is a Dangerous Thing: Part Seven
Sierra ran up the rickety emergency staircase to the hotel she checked into upon her arrival in Neovia, the metal stairs clanking loudly as her feet hit them. She flung the door open on one of the floors and rushed into her room. She bolted the door shut and leaned against it for a moment, panting. She looked at the red and navy striped wallpaper that covered the walls and the matching red rug worn thin around the edges. Her suitcase, still covered in Tyrannian dust, lay on the sofa next to the dark wooden desk .
"Okay. Okay. I'm here. I'm safe for the moment. Okay. I'm okay." She walked over to the navy bed and sat on it, running her paws through her messy hair.
"I gotta regroup now, I've got to. Okay. Okay. I need... A dagger. Right. I gotta head to the armoury, then to mansion to get the files. I can use the files on his sister somehow... Oh Damien, I'm sorry." She buried her face in her paws. "What was I thinking?" Her voice wavered. "Once I get the files I'll leave, get the next rickshaw home. That's what I'll do. I just have to be really careful. Okay." She got up, brushed her hair, tied it back and grabbed her pouch of Neopoints. She gathered up some snacks and water, scribbled a quick neomail to ask for her things to be sent home, then called a weewoo over from the window to deliver the message. She slung her shoulder bag over her shoulder, then finally left the room.
Sierra snatched the binders stuffed with papers from Martha's desk and slid them inside a large beige envelope lined with bubble wrap. She quickly wrote her address on the back after dropping a quick note in it, then slid the package into her shoulder bag. She checked her pocket watch. Martha will be out of her meeting soon, I'd better go. She snuck out of the office sector to the maze-like hallways and down a flight of stairs. She placed her paw on the rail as she descended only to find that her paw was covered in a sticky substance that resembled the remnants of spilled coffee. She pulled a disgusted face then snuck into the nearest restroom. She scrubbed her paws at the sink. She dried her paws off, then looked in the mirror. Loose strands of hair fell around her face haphazardly, and she smoothed out the wrinkles in her top and trousers. Her big, brown eyes stared vacantly back at her.
"Oh, Priscilla, quit whining like that!" She heard a voice from outside. She rushed into a stall and locked the door shut. She heard the door open and two girls noisily walked in.
"Whatever's the matter with you, Priscilla?" the voice asked irritably.
"I heard that the high council meeting is tonight at five-thirty and they're going to tell us about the spy that everyone's talking about! I wanna know who it is!" Priscilla complained obnoxiously. "If I find out who it is, then I won't be an amateur insider anymore. I'll be a full-fledged insider like you!"
"You can fluff your hair and flaunt all you like but I am still your older sister and technically your superior even if you get that promotion!" She paused. "Don't make that face at me! Are you done fixing your hair now? We're going to be late!"
They left the restroom bickering, while Sierra waited until she was sure it was safe to emerge from her hiding place. High Council... That's probably in the Grand Conference Room! I'd better mail this package first. She reached inside her bag and patted it, then reached her paw further inside her bag and wrapped her hand around something small and rectangular. What's this? She pulled it out and inspected the gray box. Black tape was coiled up inside one of the panels. A series of buttons were on the top: power, record, play, stop, pause, rewind and fast forward. She pulled out a pair of earbuds, a small microphone and a thin, black extension wire from her bag where the cassette recorder sat. She smirked. Maybe I should wait to send it.
"Ladies and gentlemen, my fellow members," began the Duchess. She, along with ten other members of the executive council, was seated at the large, round mahogany table in the Grand Conference room. She discreetly adjusted herself on the plush, black leather chair as she scanned the expressions on the councilmen and women's faces. Norheim sat to her right and gave her a concerned look.
"I have called you to this meeting to discuss two important matters. I shall begin first with current plans. How did the analysis of the Obelisk go?"
"Very well. We are gaining progress on understanding the Obelisk from our findings a few skirmishes ago and from reports from members in the Order. Everything is still on schedule. Here are the reports on our progress as requested." A yellow Yurble handed Norheim a folder, who then handed it to the Duchess. "Recent developments from past research have shown that the magical power emanating from the light source deep inside the Obelisk possesses a huge amount of energy, enough to light every building in Neopia for several years if not longer if it is dispersed properly. Once we gain temporary access to the Obelisk through winning a skirmish, preliminary small scale testing should be ready."
"Excellent." The Duchess thumbed through the papers briefly, then looked up. "Continue your research on aerial energy and magic dispersal. It will be needed to power the device as well as to be able to disperse the energy throughout Neopia."
"Yes, my lady." The Duchess looked up to the Ruki sitting next to the Yurble.
"The device is almost complete, my lady. We are still dealing with some technical difficulties.
"Well, fix the difficulties faster! Now, how about the maps?"
A Draik handed Norheim a folder. "All of the vault maps in all of the faction regional and global headquarters, universities and museums have been updated. Our missions to gain intelligence on updated security have been postponed since two of our contacts have been hospitalized for Neomonia."
"That is... unfortunate. Set the exchange for Saturday at the usual place. If they are not better by then, we can make alternative arrangements. Operation Master can't wait for them."
"Yes, your Ladyship."
"Speaking of intelligence, how is our general collection going?"
"Very well. After the next three missions we should have enough to begin compiling the messages to be dispersed via the device and the other means."
"Good." The Duchess paused to organize and neatly stack the folders given to her.
"Now, for the other matter I have call you here to discuss: we have discovered a problem in the past hours. It seems that young Agent Nova, also known as Sierra Hardingson and a former member of the Seekers, has submitted her article series to The Neopian Times without our knowledge or consent. This would not be a major issue under normal circumstances, but her article series has proved to be incredibly important in our research and development departments. However, she decided to ensure that we do not have sole access to this source, but that everyone has access to such information and thus making it useless to us. This is a direct act of defiance on her part."
Small gasps and discreet exclamations of surprise were heard around the room.
"Now, yesterday we sent her on a mission to the Seekers headquarters from which she has not returned. However, her partner Agent Night, who is known in our coding department, returned and informed us that the mission was unsuccessful due to security capturing them before they could successfully gain the documents. He also mentioned that Agent Nova had disappeared after he sustained a head injury and they escaped from the dungeons. He did not say whether this failure was intentional or how he lost track of her, and we did not ask since he is being treated for said injury. I believe that it was intentional, and this proves that she is the spy we are looking for."
Everyone began murmuring worriedly among themselves. "She must be eliminated as soon as we find her!" one member called out.
"She must be found and disposed of, that is certain. However, if we use the right... Tactics, per se, we shall be able to gain more information from her than we already have. Saunders, set up a medium-sized search team that will set out tomorrow. Ensure that you tell them that she must be returned alive. Wilkinson, gather your team and collect all files on her so preliminary interrogation questions can be compiled. I shall be conducting the main interview. Thorley, keep a close eye on Mr. Valius, and monitor all of his incoming and outgoing correspondence. If he leaves the premises send an agent to follow him. The rest of you shall continue on with your current assignments, but alert all agents that they are required to turn her in should they find her. Norheim, you stay with me. I need to have a word with you. That is all. Meeting dismissed." Everyone rose from their seats and chattered quietly among themselves as they began heading for the door.
Sierra yanked the microphone's wire to free the device from its hiding place in the wall. She hurriedly pulled it towards her and under the gap in the door. She heard the conference room open and the council filing out into the hallway. Just in time. She breathed a quiet sigh of relief. She played back a short piece of the recording to make sure it worked, then rewound the tape, unplugged her headset and the extension wires attached to the mic and placed them into her shoulder bag. She sat against the closet wall, trying to let everything she heard sink in. I was right. They're up to something big, and it's all going to unfold soon.
She peeked under the door, then once she was sure the coast was clear she carefully and quietly stood up, opened the door and left the closet. She looked at the hallways and doors around her. Oh crud, where's the hallway to one of the doors? She retraced her steps to the main floor hallway, where she recognized where she was. The front door's the only one where I can leave without suspicion. She walked down the main flight of stairs, using her coat hood to hide her face. At the door, and then the gate, she showed her ring to the guards and they let her out without any questions.
She hailed a rickshaw to the main Neovian square. Night had fallen, and tattered 'pets were climbing up the lampposts to light the kerosene lamps. The dark roofs and upper floors of the buildings almost disappeared against the dark, cloudy sky. Cool mist hung low in the air and nipped at her cheeks. She turned into a street which led to the Post Office when a moving shadow caught her eye. She whirled around, then leaned against the cold stone wall behind her. Her heart pounded. What was that? Her paw impulsively moved to her dagger handle. She saw the shadow move again, this time slowly moving towards her. It saw her, no doubt.
"Hello?" she called out quietly.
The shadow reached up and pulled its sweatshirt hood down. "Sierra?"
"Damien," she replied shortly. "What are you doing here?"
"Looking for you. Everyone wants to find you, you know."
"I know. Have you made up your mind?"
"Are you going to side with me or them? I just overheard a meeting where a lot of stuff is revealed. They're planning something big, and it's going to affect the whole world."
"Sure you did."
"I have it recorded." She pulled out the recorder and the earbuds. She rewound the tape, plugged in the earbuds and handed them to him. "Listen to the first part."
He stood next to her and took them. She watched his expressions subtly change as he listened. Once he finished he handed them back to her, eyes wide. He stood there for a moment, speechless, taking deep, shaky breaths. "You were right. I've been so blind," he whispered finally, struggling to collect his thoughts. "I have a vague idea of what they're doing, and I don't think I want to be a part of it anymore. I've been thinking about what you said, about being pawns in their chess game and being kept in the dark."
"What are they up to?"
He walked further into the shadows with her, then whispered into her ear.
"I encoded and decoded a lot of correspondence between agents and others outside of the Sway. They're planning some sort of psychological attack on Neopia using the Obelisk and maybe other things we find in the future, I'm not sure. They've been strategically manipulating history so they can catch us in our weakest moment, like if the economy's on the verge of collapse directly after a war that drained the economy, resources or something along those lines. Once the attack commences, havoc and chaos ensues and they, or a group manipulated by them will be the only one able to control the situation and maintain order. Then they gain full domination on Neopia and because of the attack most won't even know it or be able to do anything to retaliate. It's all a hypothesis, if you will."
Sierra couldn't hold in a gasp. "Oh, Fyora."
She turned to face him. "We've got to stop them, or delay them at least."
He nodded. "You've been doing just that," he paused, then said finally, "I want to help you, Sierra."
"I don't want to drag you into this too much. They're looking for me, and if they see you with me, let alone helping, your life is going to be in as much danger as mine already is. They're monitoring you, watching your actions and correspondence and everything." She paused. "I'm mailing the recorder, the files on your sister, and some other stuff back home. Isobel is going to take your sister's files out and mail the rest to Brightvale. I'll be right back."
She slipped into the post office, dropped the recorder inside the package and sealed it, then handed it to the cashier and paid for the postage. She walked outside to see that Damien had vanished, but a note was left where he stood. She picked it up and opened it. It was in his messy, rushed print.
She suddenly heard footsteps echoing down the street, growing louder as they approached her. She bolted, keeping the note scrunched in her paw. She pulled her hood up as she dashed into the main square and headed for the Eyrie taxis.
"Mom? Mom, lemme in!" She frantically knocked on the door. Isobel opened it, and Sierra gave her a quick hug before hurrying in.
"Sierra, what's going on? I thought you weren't returning until tomor-"
"We need to leave right now. All of us. They've figured out that I'm the spy, and they're after me. We're not safe here."
Isobel's green eyes widened. "I'll pull Zane out from school. You get what you need and we'll take an Eyrie taxi to the vacation house when I get back."
"Sounds like a plan. I have something I need to buy, then I'll pack and get Tyler. Can we leave in forty minutes?"
"Why are we here, mama?" Tyler looked at her with big, brown, curious eyes.
Isobel sighed. "We're hiding from some people that Sierra doesn't like." She sat at the light-wooden kitchen table. The kitchen and the living room were various shades of green and gold. The bright, Mystery Island sun flooded through the white, sheer curtains that hung above the windows.
"So we're playing a game of hide and seek?"
"...I guess so. But we can't ever let them find us, especially her."
"She knows something they don't want her to, a secret."
"What is it?"
"I don't know."
He cocked his head in thought as he idly played with a few figurines.
Zane sat down at the table with with a sandwich and a glass of apple juice. "When will we be able to go back home, Mom?"
"I don't know. Soon, hopefully. Where's Sierra?"
"In her room still. I think she was taking a shower earlier."
Sierra marched downstairs wearing jeans, a T-shirt and worn sneakers. Her long, brown hair was wrapped in a towel and a hoodie was tied around her waist. She grabbed a glass of water and sat with the rest of them at the table. "It's nice to be back here, isn't it? We haven't been here in a while."
"Yeah," Isobel replied. An awkward silence fell between the four of them.
A shadow fell on Sierra, making her jump. She froze and slowly stood up. She spotted the silhouette of a pet outlined in the curtain.
"Look," she whispered, pointing.
"Should we answer it?" Zane whispered.
Sierra shook her head. They were all standing on the beige tiles now. She unwrapped the towel around her hair and set the towel on the chair next to her, combing her hair with her fingers.
Someone knocked on the door suddenly, making them all jump. Isobel began leading Zane and Tyler upstairs. They heard another knock a short moment later.
"Faction Investigative Services, open up!"
Sierra restrained a gasp, grabbed her weapons and her shoulder bag and hid inside the closet underneath the staircase. She carefully slid the dagger sheath and the new blaster holster on her belt on opposite sides.
They knocked on the door again. "Faction Investigation services, open up, Miss Hardingson!"
Everything was silent for a moment, then the door burst open. She held her breath and hoped they couldn't hear her heart racing. She peered through the lock hole and saw three pets dressed entirely in black disperse through the house, blasters aimed.
"Clear," one said from the other side of the house.
"Clear." She heard one walk upstairs.
"Clear." The incident in the vaults with Damien flashed before her eyes. She winced and shook her head, trying to fling the memory from her mind. She pushed a box against the door, inched towards the back of the closet and opened the escape tunnel hatch. She picked up her pace as she trotted towards the entrance, ducking to avoid hitting her head on the ceiling. A clanging sound echoed through the tunnel as the closet door was forced open.
They'll be in here soon... She sprinted towards the ladder that led up to the manhole cover in the alley.
"There!" She heard one of them say. She climbed up the ladder and struggled to open the manhole cover. Footsteps rapidly approached her as she gave the cover one final shove, popping it open.
"Get her, quick!"
A shot was fired into the dark.
To be continued...