Friday, May 18, 2018

Chapter 2 of the new Thea & Max adventure!

Chapter 2: Potential Supervillain Plot
“Ah, the glorious life of a spy.” D’s voice, this time on the other end of a phone rather than an earbud, was as dryly amused as always.  Sometimes, Max wondered if she’d picked up the British accent at some point just to add to the effect. “Lurking outside the Columbus airport, defending your territory from the real shuttle service drivers.”
“You’re just jealous because you’ve had to spend the last three days in a luxury Saudi Arabian hotel doing nothing but relaxing and listening to audio recordings,” Max said lightly, holding up a sign with Thea’s cover I.D. written on it. “You know where I am, there’s at least a 15 percent chance I’ll get to punch somebody before this is all over.”
Maybe more, if the feeling in his gut was to be believed. When he first got Dave’s call, he assumed he’d be taking a few days to soothe an eccentric old man’s paranoia. With every minute he was actually out here, though, his sense that there was something seriously wrong kept climbing.
“You know I can be out there the second you need me.” The sudden seriousness in D’s voice made it clear she read his silence as well as she ever did. “Any idiot could handle my current assignment. All it will do is take one phone call to Rhys.”
Max smiled a little, genuinely touched by the offer. “Thank you, seriously. But like I said, I’ll be fine. This is probably nothing.”
“So ‘nothing’ that you flew out to Chicago simply to go ask your programmer for help?” D asked, using the tone that pointed out how full of shit he was without actually saying the words. “When we both know you wanted to wait until you found something exciting for her first spy mission?”
“I still am,” he countered, carefully sidestepping the real question. “This isn’t her first spy mission. This is just a favor for whatever it is she sees me as.”
A part of him, even now, kept expecting her to call and say she wasn’t coming. It would be wildly out of character for Thea not to hold up her end of an agreement, but asking someone to drop everything and fly out to Ohio on a hunch definitely counted as extraordinary circumstances. It was entirely reasonable that common sense would suddenly hit her and make her realize she never should have said yes in the first place.
“A favor, hmmm?” D’s tone was gentler now. “What did you do to get her to say yes to that?”
“I’ll have to get her to Rome at some point,” Max said lightly, even though he knew Thea had thrown that in as an afterthought. Hopefully, she actually wanted to go to Rome, because he was absolutely planning to follow through.
“That will be such a hardship for you, I’m sure.” The tone was teasing, but when she sighed it sounded completely serious again. “Keep me updated, would you? If you’re foolish enough to get yourself seriously injured because you didn’t have the good sense to call me, I’m going to be extremely annoyed with you.”
Max smiled again as he hung up the phone, sliding it back into his pocket as he scanned the crowds coming through the doors. The uniform hat was pulled low enough to keep his face off of any cameras, but he’d arrived early enough that a few of the other drivers were giving him pointed glares for his prime real estate. It was too late to go back in time and make himself wait, but in a few minutes he’d have to circle the block just to—
The thought cut off when he saw Thea hurrying through the doors, wearing a professional-looking pantsuit and dark curls pulled back in a sensible ponytail. She was carrying her small suitcase rather than wheeling it behind her, and had the faintly harried look everyone got after having to deal with an airport.
Right then, she was the best thing he’d ever seen.
He stepped forward, lifting a hand, and he could tell when she caught sight of him by the relief on her face. His own chest felt suspiciously tight, full of things he knew it was best not to look at too closely, but he kept the conversation to the usual shuttle service spiel while he loaded her luggage in the back and opened her door for her.
When he got inside, safely shutting the door, he gave her a real grin. “Your Taser’s in the glove compartment, if you’re curious. Fully charged.”
She got it out as he pulled back into traffic, giving it an approving once-over before slipping it into her purse. “I assume this professor of yours knows I’m coming?”
Max nodded, sobering at the reminder. “I told Dave I was bringing in a computer expert from the security firm I work for, and he spent 20 minutes apologizing for the fuss he'd been making and explaining that there was really no need to go to all the trouble.” He knew this was more information than she’d technically asked for, but it was a relief to finally be able to put some of his worry into words. “Which would be fine, except this is the first time in my life I've ever heard Dave apologize. About anything.”
Thea winced. “Okay, that does sound suspicious.”
“Tell me about it.” He let out a breath, navigating his way through airport roads and out onto the main highway. “I'm really afraid he's gotten himself in trouble, somehow, but I can't figure out how a professor in the middle of Nowhere, Ohio who's obsessed with grain crops would manage to do that.”
“I hate to say it, but it usually has something to do with money.” She hesitated. “I can... poke around a little. If you'd like.”
He’d hoped she would be willing to take a look at Dave’s files, but the way she phrased that sparked his interest. “Are we talking Nancy Drew here, or Miss ‘How dare you accuse me of being a hacker?’”
Thea narrowed her eyes at him. "First, you thought I'd hacked my own code to work with terrorists, which isn't the same thing at all. Second, it’s…” She let her voice trail off, suddenly looking more hesitant than he’d ever seen her be. “Just because I don't do something doesn't mean I can’t.”
There was a story here, but one he had to be careful in getting. “There’s not even a hint of that in your files,” he said lightly. “And I have some pretty extensive files.”
He glanced over to see a flicker of pride cross her face. It was a much better look for her than the hesitation had been. “It only ends up in your files if you get caught.” She even smiled a little. “I know this is a strange and foreign territory to you, but when you’re not prone to showboating it’s much easier not to get noticed.”
He grinned. “But where's the fun in that?”
Her smile widened briefly before she sobered again. “I would prefer no one else know, if that’s at all possible. I know Rhys should probably know, in case he needs me to do something specific, but….”
As the words trailed off, Max shook his head. “He won’t hear about it from me. Though honestly, you should feel free to tell him yourself – scuttlebutt says that his best friend was a hacker, back in the day.”
“I don’t know,” she said finally, in the tone of voice that actually meant “no.” “It’s just… I think you might be the first person I’ve ever told.”
The words humbled him. “Whatever you’re comfortable with.”
“Thank you.” She relaxed, settling back against the seat. “Still, the offer’s open if you need it.”
“I’ll keep that in mind.” His fingers tightened on the steering wheel, wanting to give her something in return. The problem was, most of the secrets in his past weren’t nearly so charming or pleasant. “Dave calls me Rick, by the way.” He kept his eyes on the road for this part. “Rick Martinez. I completely made up the first part, but… the last part is my mother’s maiden name.” He let out a breath, trying hard not to think about how much his mother would have liked Thea. “My real first name is Joshua.” 
He could feel how carefully she was watching him, which meant she had to have noticed how tense he’d suddenly gotten. “You didn’t have to tell me that,” she said quietly.
“Seemed like we were having a moment.” His voice wasn’t nearly as light as he’d meant it to be, and it took far more effort than it should have to keep his voice from cracking. “Didn’t want to miss out on my turn.”
She didn’t respond to that, and Max braced himself for questions. When she finally did speak, however, her voice was gentle. “If you don’t mind, I think I’ll keep calling you Max when we’re not on assignment.” When he glanced over at her, she smiled at him. “I like it better than Joshua.”
He grinned back at her, trying to ignore the lump in his throat. “So do I.”
The campus of Lochland Agricultural University was quieter than most of the colleges Max had visited, which meant they weren’t bothered as they wove their way to Dave’s building. Max had made himself a parking pass along with all the necessary I.D.s, so he pulled into one of the faculty and staff spaces. “So, ready to meet Professor David Hoskins, a man who is fantastically bad at interacting with humans and may or may not have gotten funding from the agro-mafia to help create a super-bacteria?”
“First, I’m almost positive the agro-mafia isn’t an actual thing.” She gave him a wry look. “Second, I’m very familiar with male nerds. I think I can handle your professor.”
Max winced. “Dave may actually be slightly worse than the standard model.” At Thea's surprised look, he shrugged. “It's like the science is really the only thing that exists for him. The rest of the world mostly gets shuffled into a box labeled 'things that distract him from science.’”
Thea’s look had softened to curiosity by this point. “But you two are still close?”
"I don't know if I'd call it 'close.' It's more like he tolerates me, but actively dislikes pretty much everyone else." Back in college, during those first few years after escaping his old life, it had felt like the most honest relationship he had. “He needed someone to run interference for him, and I was the only TA he had to didn’t snap and try to kill him after a few weeks.”
Her curious look sharpened, like she was about to ask something about whether he had any actual friends in college, and before she could he got out of the car and opened her door. “Don’t worry – if he tries to interrogate you too much, I’ll deflect.”
Thea gave him an amused look, clearly catching his evasion. “That should be interesting to watch.” 
He watched Thea study everything as they made their way inside, more pleased than he probably should have been to see her eyes linger on several different weak spots in the building’s security. She didn’t catch all of them – the lab of a small university, it turned out, was basically a defensive nightmare – but she had a fantastic eye for a civilian.
When they got to the lab, however, there were other things that demanded Max’s attention. What appeared to be some sort of roofless tent made of autoclave bags had been constructed over one side of the lab bench, sheltering it entirely from view. Some of the DNA equipment had been moved over to the opposite side of the bench, where the grad students were valiantly trying to construct a new decontamination shield.
Already feeling the headache coming on, he looked over at the PhD student at one of the computers. Grace didn’t seem to get ruffled by anything, which generally made her the most reliable source of information. “That wasn’t here this morning.”
“He built it while you were gone.” She kept her eyes focused on the screen, rapidly inputting numbers. “Which means we’re at least a day behind on our Wheat Rust research, and even though Dr. Hoskins doesn’t give a damn about it there are some of us who still do.”
If even Grace was about ready to kill him, then things were really bad. “I’ll get him,” he sighed, shooting Thea an apologetic look. “Sorry. I may have undersold his inability to handle other humans.”
She held up a hand. “No need to apologize. I have an aunt like this.”
Ducking his head under the tent flap – where had Dave found these metal poles so quickly – he poked a finger in the middle of the lab-coated back bent over a microscope. “Dave, time to come out and play with the other members of society. Your students are prepared to overthrow you if you don’t.”
“What are they complaining about? I gave them the equipment they needed.” Still, Dave lifted his head to look back over his shoulder at Max. His face was narrow in a way that meant he rarely remembered to eat, his beard in desperate need of a trim. He’d looked that way when Max was in college, too. “Tell them I’m busy.”
“Not a chance.” Max slipped all the way inside, letting the flap close behind him. “I need you out here to explain your magic bacteria to that computer security specialist I was telling you about.”
Dave made a dismissive noise, bending back down to the microscope. “You explain it. This Ms. Thurgood needs to know whether someone is hacking the lab’s computers, not the inner workings of my bacteria or the retrovirus it carries.”
Technically, that was true. But he needed Thea to hear the scientific version of it, so he could see if it made perfect sense to her or if she caught the whiff of “potential supervillain plot” like he did. “You know me and science, Dave. I’ll get three lines in and completely bungle the whole thing.”
That got him to turn around again, if only to shoot Max a disgruntled look. “We both know that you understand science perfectly well. You simply don’t like it.”  His eyes narrowed. “It doesn’t like you, either, I’m sure. You certainly broke the hearts of enough promising young scientists who came sniffing after you while you were in undergrad.”
Taking advantage of the sudden resurgence of the old argument, he gently nudged Dave away from the microscope. “I keep telling you, it’s not my fault Paul became a priest.”
Dave hrumphed, too focused on proving Max wrong to protest being moved. “He could have been a brilliant researcher. There was no reason for him to give that up.”
“He said he felt a calling.” Max lifted up the flap with his free hand, nudging him through. “Just like you did with science.”
“That’s ridiculous. He was perfectly happy—“ Dave stopped, narrowing his eyes as he finally processed that he was now on the opposite side of the tent. He turned to glare at Max. “I forget how tricky you are.”
“Many people do.”  He gestured to Thea, who was busy helping the student scientists try to re-assemble their work space. “Dave, this is Elise Thurgood, Sterling Enterprise’s resident computer genius. Elise, this is Professor David Hoskins, one of the most annoying geniuses I’ve ever met.”
Thea stopped what she was doing, holding out a hand. “Pleased to meet you, professor. Rick has been telling me a great deal about your work.”
Dave shot Max a disgruntled look “I’ll bet he has.” He gestured toward a door on the opposite side of the lab. “Come on, then.”
As he disappeared through the door, Thea shot him a questioning look. Max gestured her onward, turning back to the students. “You have this dismantled by the time we get back,” he told them, voice low. “I’ll buy you all pizza.”
Grace considered this a moment, then nodded. “Done.”
They started swarming Dave’s stolen workspace as Max followed Thea out the door. He already knew the pathway to the lab’s greenhouse, having been led there the first day, and slipped into position next to Thea just as Dave stopped in front of the right environmental chamber. “My greatest work,” the older man said proudly, gesturing to the wheat plants visible through the sides of the chamber. “All five of them started out as different variants of wheat, but now all five are genetically identical – the perfect, healthy, ideal plant.”
Thea’s eyebrows flickered upward briefly. “Rick mentioned that you’d developed a bacteria?”
Dave’s eyes lit. “A retrovirus inside a bacteria.” He laid a hand against the side of the environmental chamber, looking at the plants the same way other people looked at puppies or kittens. “I refined the virus so that, rather than inserting its own reverse-transcribed RNA, it inserts the RNA I choose to have the virus carry. The retrovirus sees the insertion as programming, and will place itself in the correct location to disrupt any conflicting genes. The bacteria is infinitely more controllable as a biological gene vector than the pure virus, which means we should be able to contain the changes to a specific field.” He turned back to Thea, practically glowing. “Think of what could be accomplished.”
Thea’s eyebrows took considerably longer to come down this time. “You could destroy a farmer’s entire crop, along with any future seeds.”
Dave scoffed. “That’s easy – there are so many crop diseases we can do that now. Sabotage is the realm of the simpleton.” He turned back to his plants. “No, my virus will save crops all over the world. When the blight comes, no matter what form it takes, all scientists will have to do is prime the virus with the healthy version of the DNA and set it loose in the infected plants. Within days, their entire crop is healthy and whole again.”
Thea’s eyes flicked over to Max. “I bet the grant committee was excited to hear how far your research had progressed.”
Dave immediately bristled, turning back to glare at her. “This research is being privately funded,” he snapped, and Max mentally circled the comment in bright red marker. “The drones who hand out the grant money wouldn’t understand the value of what I’m doing if I wrote out a detailed chart for them. For the sake of true scientific achievement, I had to go elsewhere.”   
“Will I get to meet this mysterious benefactor?” Max asked lightly. “Guys rich enough to privately fund research are generally good for a freelance bodyguarding gig or two.”
“He has his own people,” Dave said shortly, once again calling attention to himself by avoiding the person’s name. He turned away from them. “Besides, I think he’s out of town at the moment.”
As excuses went, it was only a step or two up from “He just stepped into the shower. Can he call you back?” But Dave had already left the conversation, staring at his wheat through the wall of the environmental chamber like Max imagined a man would stare at his child through a nursery window. Pride, love, and possessiveness were the most obvious emotions, with the faintest undercurrent of pure terror running just beneath the surface.
Thea cleared her throat to get his attention. “That sounds fascinating, Professor. I assume all your data is on the lab computers?”
“Yes, yes.” Dave nodded distractedly, staring at the wheat through the wall of the environmental chamber. “I don’t expect you to understand it, but all the information is there.”
“If I did have a question about some of your research, could I ask you?” she asked, faking just the right touch of diffidence. “I wouldn’t interrupt your work, but this seems like a fascinating area of study.”
Dave hesitated, then turned to give her a far more penetrating look than the question warranted. Then, finally, he turned back to the chamber. “Maybe.” He gave the wall a gentle pat. His expression already seemed far away again. “Depends on how busy I am.” 
Now that he wasn’t looking at her, Thea’s own expression turned far more analytical. “If you’re busy, I can ask one of your students.”
Dave made a dismissive noise. “They’re busy with their own project. Curing all three types of wheat rust.” He looked solemn again. “This one is mine. Only mine.”
Then he turned, heading back towards the exit. “You know the way out.”
When he was gone, Thea let out a breath. “Well, that was weirdly uncomfortable,” she said after a moment, voice pitched low enough that the one or two other people in the greenhouse couldn’t hear them. “Do you want me to take a look at who’s—”
“Yes, please.” He gestured toward the exit, careful to pace himself so they were walking exactly together. “I’ll go clone his phone and walk my way through his contacts the last few months, see if there’s anyone who sets off alarms.” There were a lot of databases full of people who had connections to various shady enterprises, and Max had access to all of them. Dave probably wasn’t working with a drug runner or anything, but there were plenty of ways you could dip a toe into the criminal pool.
Whatever Dave had done, Max was going to get him out of it.