For an easier life Circulation: 183,130,331 Issue: 471 | 24th day of Storing, Y12
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Occupational Hazard: Part Two

by antiaircraft


It was a relatively quiet trip to the station's 'guest suite'. Three Slash class hunter-killers led the way, followed by Elaine. The Wocky was flanked on her right and left by the ultimate weapon and the galaxy's deadliest bounty hunter respectively. Not exactly prime escape conditions. Three more hunter-killers brought up the rear. Elaine could feel the laser sights on their blasters prickling her skin.

     "So," Ylana piped up conversationally, "that was quite a show you put on. Getting past six security teams, sneaking into the hangar bay... with a bit of luck you could have blown right past that perimeter. I was wondering why I had so much trouble stopping you the last time we met. Now I know why."

     Elaine didn't reply.

     "Well, hey, just trying a little small talk," the bounty hunter went on, slightly miffed by Elaine's subdued silence. "So anyway, how is it that somebody with your level of talent isn't looking for a job with a better paycheck?" she inquired.

     Elaine just kept plodding on wordlessly.

     "Oh come on, I'm genuinely curious. You're just about the only Resistance spy good enough for me to actually like, and I've met a lot of the riff-raff that passes for spies in the Resistance."

     Elaine shot Ylana a pointed look, prompting a brief laugh from the Acara.

     "Well, I can see why Sloth's torture threats didn't bother you much," she continued, "but you really shouldn't be pushing me. Who knows, I might be the one who gets to wring your neck later."

     The group rounded another bend, and a long corridor swung into view, lined with polished Skaridian-6 on all four sides. Heavy, hexagonal doors fitted with scanning stations and ridiculously oversized magnetic locks were set into the walls at regular intervals. Ylana directed them towards one door, located at the far end of the cell block, that looked significantly heavier than all the rest.

     "Well, looks like we're running out of time for our little heart-to-heart," remarked Ylana. "I suppose you still think you're doing the right thing and all, Nevergreen, but seriously, don't write off your options too quickly. However you put it, it's pretty clear that the Resistance hasn't exactly been taking care of you. The way I see it: they screwed up, picked a scapegoat, and that happened to be you. Why else do you think you're stuck out here on this insane mission?

     "Believe me, nobody's going to think any less of you if you quit after that. And to be perfectly honest with you, I'm sick of spending all day working with Sloth's army of incompetent idiots. I wouldn't mind having someone on board who actually knows what they're doing."

     They had reached the end of the corridor by now. Ylana pushed Elaine cautiously onto a scanning pad - the Wocky didn't protest, it was better than being pushed by the Reaper. The scanners started up silently, with no visual indicators beyond a few small blinking lights. The bounty hunter moved over to a nearby unmarked display.

     "No weapons, conventional, chemical, or otherwise," she declared, reading the scanner report as it scrolled up the screen. "No communications devices, tactical computers, or other unwanted electronics. No unauthorised nutritional substances (we had a sugar incident, don't ask). No contagious diseases, apart from your misguided patriotism. And, ooh... what have we here. A magnet. Absolutely terrifying."

     Ylana reached into Elaine's jacket and extracted the offending item, examining it carefully. "Well, I'm going to have to confiscate this one, Nevergreen. We wouldn't want you messing with any keypads in there, would we?"

     The Acara glanced back at the display, triple-checking the final readings. Satisfied, she pulled out a keycard and swiped it across the screen. Without so much as a click, the lights on the door switched from green to red, and the door itself retracted smoothly upwards into the ceiling, revealing a three by three metre solid metal cell. The cell was illuminated by dim red light strips on the walls. Somebody had thoughtfully decided to weld a short bench to one side of the cell.

     "Brand new Virtupets LP9 Industrial Magnetic Seals," Ylana whistled, impressed. "Smooth as silk."

     She nudged Elaine through the door, her hand never straying far from her blaster. As Elaine stepped inside, she noticed a small chrome keypad set into the wall right beside the entrance.

     "All right, home sweet home." Ylana smirked slightly. "In case you're wondering about the keypad, it's a little backup measure Sloth insists on these days. Every cell's been fitted with one of those. There's a one hundred twenty-eight digit override combination that only he knows, just so nobody can lock him up in one of his own cells. That's about a hundred thousand quadragintillion possible combinations, in case you're curious. Have away at it."

     Elaine ignored the pad and shuffled forward so she could collapse onto the bench.

     "Or you could get some rest." Ylana shrugged. "I can't say you won't need it. Anyway, I'd better go and make sure that idiot Gormos hasn't managed to screw up Sloth's coffee again. I'll see you in a few hours."

     The Acara treated Elaine to one last jaunty wave as she turned to leave, the rest of the escort moving with her. The door slid shut with an ominous lack of a clang.

     Elaine slumped against the wall, too tired even to perform her customary sweep for bugs. Of course, Sloth wasn't in the habit of keeping an eye on enemies he thought were already safely out of the way, but she should really be doing something. Reviewing escape routes. Devising a plan of some sort. Anything but sitting uselessly in her cell while the seconds ticked away.

     Exhaustion was beginning to get the better of her however. She hadn't eaten anything in four days, and she had barely slept in six. Months of ceaseless undercover work had taken its toll on her. She couldn't hold that at bay any longer. And she had never really recovered after what had happened three months ago...

     Elaine's mind began to drift, heading back towards the events of that fateful day.

     They'd been pursuing one of Sloth's perps, an android spy, through the Virtupets Space Station orbiting Neopia. The android had fled onto the packed recreation deck. She'd equipped her team with EMP cannons, ordering them to fire as soon as they had a clear shot at the spy. She'd countermanded that order when she realised what the android was carrying. But it was already too late. One of her agents was already firing his weapon.

     The EMP tripped the detonators on nine highly-concentrated packs of plasmite explosives. The resulting chain reaction had ripped the deck wide open. Thirty-eight Neopians died that day. She had barely managed to seal the breach in time to stop that number from tripling.

     She'd known back then that she would never be able to trust her own judgement again. Not once in the last three months had she been sure of what she needed to do.

     It was with these fitful thoughts in her mind that sleep claimed her.

    * * *

     The subconscious mind works in mysterious ways, shaped into a formidable cognitive beast by a primal force as old as life itself. It is shrewd, yet simple. Cunning, yet true. It goes far beyond the understanding of any sentient being. Boast as he might, Doctor Sloth had barely scratched the surface of the incomprehensible intelligence that his newest mind control technology depended on.

     There is one thing we know for certain about this enigma however: when the conscious mind goes to sleep, the subconscious goes into overdrive.

     Sloth had been using Elaine's subconscious to exert his control over her for a while now, and it had played along, largely because it didn't have much of a choice. But it didn't like being bossed around, and it didn't like the emotions that were now rampaging across Elaine's mind.

     It decided that the present state of affairs was unacceptable. A strategy would have to be devised to eliminate the source of the problem.

     Being attached to one of the most resourceful spies in Neopian history didn't hurt.

     * * *

     Elaine woke with a start. This was her usual mode of awakening. The more typical, gradual transition from sleep to dull awareness had been forcefully strained out of her by endless mission cycles. Nevertheless, the Wocky awoke refreshed, energised, and ready to make Sloth's life as difficult as possible for as long as he decided to keep her alive.

     Naturally, she began with a bug sweep, running her fingers carefully over every last centimetre of the cell, feeling for the distinct bump of a hidden microphone or camera, or for the tell-tale vibrations of a sensor device embedded in the cell wall. It took fifteen long minutes, but eventually the Wocky came up empty. This wasn't surprising - if Sloth had wanted to keep an eye on her, he wouldn't have put her in a cell constructed of solid Skaridian-6.

     It wasn't technically impossible for there to be a monitoring device of some sort tracking her every move - for example, there might be a pair of seismic detectors positioned behind her cell, sensitive enough to pick up on her movements even through the near-impenetrable material - but that would be akin to attempting to locate a gnat with a radio telescope. Sloth wasn't that stupid.

     So Elaine moved on to the next obstacle set before her. Sloth had explicitly ordered her not to make any escape attempts, and as long as his mind control serum was still circulating through her brain, she couldn't seem to disobey. The tried and tested faerie-tale method of finding some kind of loophole in the wording had no effect. However she phrased and re-phrased her intentions ("I need to go to the bathroom!"), she simply could not initiate any kind of escape, evacuation, exodus, getaway or excursion.

     She couldn't even fly the coop.

     It followed that the only thing she could do was somehow get rid of the mind control. Elaine allowed her mind to wander tentatively down that route, and smiled slightly as she encountered no resistance. Obviously Doctor Sloth had assumed that was impossible, and neglected to account for it. Hopefully she could prove him wrong.

     She found her attention drawn inexplicably towards the cell's door. Shrugging, she leaned in to examine it - a little extra information wouldn't hurt at this point.

     The door itself was formed from multi-layered Skaridian-6 composite, not quite as hard as the pure Skaridian-6 used for the cell walls, but lighter and more elastic in the face of an explosive blast. It would bend rather than break - an important characteristic for a security door only ten centimetres thick.

     The hexagonal frame which the door was enclosed in indicated that the cell was built according to standard Virtupets security specifications. All Elaine could see was the plain frame itself and the door it held, but she was familiar with the mechanisms it contained. Two motors on either side of the door moved it up and down while it was unlocked. The top and bottom of the frame contained two incredibly powerful magnetic seals. Electromagnets strong enough to yank out compass needles several kilometres away kept the door firmly in place while it was locked. The remaining four edges of the frame were lined with a series of hydraulic bolts. Upon power loss or some other failure of the magnetic seals, the bolts would shoot in and seal the door in place. Once in position, the only way the bolts could be removed was by detonating their explosive cores, only accessible by cutting in from the outside.

     In a nutshell: when this door was shut, it stayed shut. Or did it?

     Ylana had mentioned that this particular cell was fitted with new LP9 magnetic seals. Elaine racked her brains, scouring the thousands of blueprints and other specifications she had committed to memory over the past few weeks. The LP9 model wasn't particularly special. It was simply an incremental update to the standard LP series of magnetic seals. Slightly less power consumption, smoother engaging and disengaging of the locks, marginally faster response time upon input from the impact sensors...

     The impact sensors? The slightest inkling of an idea began to form in Elaine's mind.

     Impact sensors were a fairly standard innovation in magnetic locks. The seals would run at low power most of the time, conserving energy (and the users' Neopoints) while still securing the door against most attacks. However, if a significant impact was detected, the power output to the electromagnets would be cranked up quickly to maximum, greatly amplifying the strength of their magnetic fields and making sure the seals did not fail.

     Elaine hesitated only a moment before putting her plan into action. This idea would either kill her right now or greatly improve her chances of survival in the long run. Either outcome was far preferable to the alternative.

     She backed up into a corner opposite the door, bracing her legs against the wall and making sure she had as much of a run-up as the cell allowed her. She took in a few quick breaths, recalculated the distances one last time, and leapt forward, bounding across the cell floor and directly towards the top right corner of the door frame, where one of the impact sensors was located. Twisting in mid-air, she concentrated the force from her entire body into one small point on her right shoulder, slamming into the frame like a miniature freight train.

     The pain was immediate and extremely intense, but she ignored it, dropping quickly to all fours and crouching as low as she could, pressing her head against the door's bottom edge. Not exactly your classic action hero pose, she mused as the distant hum of the cell block's internal generators reached her ears. That was all she had time to think about, because right then the brilliance of a thousand suns exploded in her head.

     It was agony unlike anything Elaine had ever experienced before. The brain isn't supposed to contain any pain receptors, but nevertheless a blinding, shearing, cleaving shock drove itself into every crack and crevice. It felt like a band of Drackonacks had taken up residence inside her skull and were having a rave party. Multiple spasms arced down her spine, sending her body flailing and smashing against the cell door and walls. It was all she could do to keep her head pressed securely against the frame's bottom edge.

     It ended as suddenly as it began. Elaine lay panting for a few seconds, then twisted herself out of her awkward position and picked herself up, shaking her head to clear it of the buzzing sensation. Miraculously, the buzzing vanished instantly.

     "I need to go to the bathroom," she told herself experimentally.

     Yes, her bladder agreed emphatically.

     Her subconscious had no objections.

     Elaine grinned in triumph. Magnetic fields and microscopic robots do not mix. Sure, she was still locked inside a practically impenetrable cell, but for all intents and purposes she was finally free. Free to do as she pleased, should the opportunity for an escape arise.

     First things first. The Wocky stretched, curled up in a corner, and settled down for a proper nap.

     * * *

     It wasn't long before Elaine woke with a start once more. She sprang nimbly to her feet, and was pleasantly surprised to find that the aching in her muscles had subsided, and despite the constant signs of fatigue, that her body was largely in fighting shape. Even her left arm was feeling better. A few more hours of healing, and it might even have the strength to snap a twig.

     And then there's the fact that it's only a matter of minutes before Sloth's minions arrive to drag you off to his torture chambers, don't forget that one, her pessimistic side reminded her. Elaine winced. She was definitely not looking forward to that. She had, of course, been trained to resist torture, but she sincerely doubted that her training would be of any real help. Especially considering that she had flunked the class twice.

     Still, there was a chance that she might be able to figure out a way to escape en route...

     With Ylana Skyfire and a Reaper watching every step you make? Don't count on it, scoffed her inner pessimist cheerily.

     "Well," she said to no-one in particular, "I'll have to see what I can do to avoid them."

     Further inspection of the door revealed no new weak points. If anything, it seemed more unassailable than ever. It had already proven that it was more than capable of handling the largest impact she could throw at it. Elaine turned her attention to the keypad she had noticed earlier.

     The pad itself was nothing special. It had a chrome-coloured plastic case holding ten chrome-coloured plastic keys, numbered zero through nine in a bold black typeface. Magnetic screws held the casing in place, protecting the wiring inside from prying hands. Not that crossing the wires in this keypad would have done much good anyway, assuming it was well constructed.

     One thing was for sure: brute force wasn't an option. She could sit here endlessly punching in combinations until Neopia's sun died of old age and still not manage to hit the correct one. And it was too much to hope that Sloth had been careless enough to set his one hundred twenty-eight digit code to some simple sequence. Knowing Sloth, his custom-built hardware would probably self destruct if she hit the wrong code too many times.

     Sloth might have been paranoid in the extreme when it came to his precious escape apparatus, put perhaps his minions hadn't been quite so attentive. Elaine had seen it plenty of times before - Virtupets inventories were filled with a mixture of manufactured and 'imported' (i.e. stolen) technologies. Some lackey would decide to cut back on production costs and borrow someone else's hard work, pocketing the excess funding for themselves. As long as they got the job done, the higher-ups turned a blind eye, and nobody asked any questions.

     Elaine squinted at the seemingly plain casing, searching for a logo or maker's mark of some sort. She also ran a finger along the edges of the casing. There! Sanded down and dyed over until it was indistinguishable in the dim light, a faint embossed outline brushed against her finger. She bent down for a closer look, rubbing her finger slowly over the mark once more.

     It was the outline of a helmet. Chiatech. By no means a bad system, but if somebody had decided to cut back on spending by using outside hardware, no doubt they had also opted to reduce installation time by neglecting to read the manual.

     Glancing around furtively in the way people do when they're about to try something that won't work, Elaine stepped back and punched in the keypad's three digit default secondary code. She then proceeded to stare in mild shock as the door obediently unlocked and slid open.

     Well, that was lame, she thought as she stepped gingerly out into the hallway. Moving quickly, she sidestepped over to the control panel and tapped the flashing LOCK icon. The door rolled down and secured itself silently. With a little luck, nobody would notice that anything had happened until it was too late.

     Making sure to stay clear of the cell block's roving cameras, Elaine crept out towards the adjoining cargo passage. As she dodged past the final scanner station, she began to feel adrenaline coursing through her veins again. Her muscles tensed in anticipation. It was time to leave. But first she needed something to shoot with. She turned left and headed towards a familiar part of the station.

To be continued...

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