Alley's smartphone went off and she answered it by reflex. It's time, Corporal.
Alley went from playfulness to perfectly serious in a second. Thankfully, no one was in a position to notice. Everyone had survived the arduous week more or less intact. Seven students had washed out already, dropping the class size down to forty seven. Sobered by the empty chairs in Ethics class, everyone had thrown themselves into Gym, all eager for Friday and a release from classes.
A trip to the beach had been the perfect idea. Thankfully, Jia's father owned a beach house near Canaveral National Seashore. Even more thankfully, the gorgeous Chinese girl realized how desperately eager her roommates were for a weekend escape.
The weather was hot, the sun fierce but beaten back by the clouds for the moment, and the never-ending sound of ocean washed over the Lambert Acres crew in endless tides of relaxation. Alley knew they had maybe an hour, maybe two before the sun went down. Would it really hurt to linger a little longer, soak up what was left of the heat and finish her tan?
"Just a sec, sir."
Alley groaned and sat up on her beach towel. Finn lay on his nearby, completely passed out and snoring blissfully. He hadn't bothered with sunscreen but between his black skin and his British heritage, it was doubtful he even knew what it was. Nate, on the other hand, was also passed out but pale enough to burn in seconds. He'd applied sunscreen hours ago and the faint reddening of his skin suggested it'd gone as far as it could go.
Sighing, she rolled up onto her feet and tiptoed through the hot sand over to his prone body. Jia lay on the other side, her golden skin glowing in the evening sun, those golden eyes hidden behind sunglasses as she read a book. Alley realized she'd come to a complete stop and, with effort, forced her attention back to picking up the sunscreen. Going there wasn't going to do her any good.
"Mmmm," Nate murmured as she squeezed out sunscreen onto her hands, rubbed them to warm it up and then quickly worked it into his skin.
"Ginger, even England doesn't make them as pale as you," she said, kindness blunting her mocking tone. "You have to put this stuff on before it wears off."
Alley rolled her eyes and walked over to Finn. Looking down at his prone figure, she chuckled and kicked sand over him. Sputtering, he rolled off his towel and flailed in the sand before coming to his senses. Scowling, the handsome black Brit picked himself up and brushed white sand from ebony skin.
"Hang on, what's that about then?"
"Showtime," she said softly.
Finn took his cue at once. Glancing over at Jia, he said, "Hey Sunrise, time to go for a beer run."
"Don't call me Sunrise." She didn't even look his way, just turned a page in her book.
"What? Alley calls you Sunrise all the time!"
"You're not Alley."
An unexpected thrill raced through Alley, incandescent delight dancing inside her skin at the intimacy Jia's words suggested. A cold dose of reality chased the fantasy away a moment later. They'd been roommates a week now and there was no evidence at all that Jia thought of her that way. Straight meant straight.
"Hey Julie, Amara, you two want anything?" she asked instead.
Alley received no answer from Nate's watchdog and Finn's...well, they were basically boyfriend and girlfriend already. Both were as unconscious as Nate, worn out by the brutal first week of school. Alley's gaze lingered on the pretty brunette, Jia's roommate. Julie and Jia had been best friends last year yet neither of them talked much about what they'd done together. Not knowing made her feel left out.
The fact that she felt left out told her that she was way too emotionally involved. Time to get out of here and stop dyking out. She had a job to do.
Major Diaz's voice was relentlessly patient over the phone. He was evidently aware of his need to wait for her to get some privacy. He was also equally determined to not stop harassing her until she could talk back.
Alley nudged Nate in the ribs until he reluctantly woke. She pointed at him and pointed towards the truck. Jia gave the kid a help up onto his feet and the four of them set across the hot sands of Canaveral National Seashore.
They reached her Ford F-150 a few minutes later. Sliding behind the wheel, Alley started the engine and waited for Finn to buckle up. Jia and Nate, as the smaller, skinniest members of the Lambert Acres Team, slid in the extended cab seating, grumbling at the tight fit.
Then Alley said, "We're alone, sir."
Good. You're at Canaveral National Seashore, right?
"That's right, sir."
It's time to pay a visit to Professor Stevens.
Alley turned the truck back onto Courtenay Parkway and headed up towards State Highway 1. The road was reasonable, the traffic surprisingly light and they made good time. Finn leaned against his door and rested his head against the window. Was he sleeping?
"Okay, you two in the back, it's time to take your shot. Any questions?" she asked at last, tilting her head so her voice carried into the back over the loud rumbling of the Ford's diesel engine.
"Ugh, we really have to do this?"
Nate's discomfiture made her smirk as he pulled out a slim blue vial from a kit she'd packed under the backseat. Jia pulled hers out and looked at it without much expression. Those beautiful golden eyes watched the liquid swirl inside the glass like it was a serpent ready to strike.
The gorgeous Chinese girl lifted her vial up, clinked it against Nate's and said "Bottoms up!" before downing the contents in one swallow. A moment later, the red-head working on a sunburn did the same. Alley breathed out a sigh of relief and focused on the drive. The turnoff for State Highway 1 was up ahead.
"Hey, why is it you two don't have to?" Nate asked, once he realized neither Finn or Alley had vials of their own.
"Vintax Synorde III blocks your brain from forming memory," Alley said. "At least until it wears off sometime tonight, anything you do you won't remember. Not being able to remember means no chance of a telepath picking your thoughts up. It's the Major's idea anyway, though I fully support it."
"I think Nate asked why it's just the two of us," Jia said. "Is it because of your ability?"
"Yeah," Alley answered as they reached State Highway 1 and turned right onto it. "My ability scrambles telepaths, among other things. Finn over there's a telepath in his own right. As far as I know, he can hide his memories or the Major wouldn't have picked him for our team."
"Why'd he pick us anyway?" Nate asked, sitting forward and leaning around the seat to better see where they were going.
Alley laughed. "Because you and Jia are way stronger than Finn and me. Like, ridiculously. Now listen up. We're after Professor Ava Stevens. The Major's identified her as a good starting point. She's got a beach house down on Bills Hill Road a few minutes from here."
"Hold on, what are we talking about here? Are we kidnapping her?" Jia sounded horrified in the backseat.
"You knew when we accepted the Major's offer there'd be strings," Alley shot back. "And not quite. If we do this the way I want to do it, she'll never leave the premises and never know we were here."
Finn made an uncomfortable noise but didn't otherwise protest. She decided to take that as a good sign. The Major knew he could rely on her because she was a soldier. She followed the chain of command. The others were an unknown quantity to her. Tonight would show how far this team would go.
They reached Bills Hill Road a few minutes later. She turned her Ford right and quickly hit dirt. Finn groaned again as she pulled over to the side of the road and parked, the slow speed making the uneven rolls in the side of the road jarring despite the F-150's suspension.
Peeking behind revealed Jia and Nate half-dozing in the back as well. She smiled sympathetically. Her own first week of HCP two years ago had been brutal enough.
It was a gorgeous day at least. Cloudy but the good kind on a hot day that kept the temperature reasonable and added contrast to an otherwise sapphire sky. The sun hung low in the horizon, promising to set sometime soon. Her stomach rumbled, reminding her it was dinnertime. Perfect.
"Okay, we're ready to make the play," Alley said, checking her smart phone first. "Looks like she's home. Time to lure her out."
"Why don't we interrogate her in her home?" Finn asked.
"Do you have any idea what kind of security HCP professors have? Most of it we can get by but she's even got satellite monitoring on her home. We're parked just outside of its attention area. If we go in, we'll be spotted and recorded. I'm pretty sure no one looks at those logs unless there's a request but no one outside of the HCP really knows how the system works. I don't want to risk it so we lure her out."
"What about a disguise?"
Of course, Alley saw Nate's question coming a mile away. It was a good one. She waited for her teammates to make the choices she expected them to make, though. It was only polite.
"That's not a bad idea," Jia said. "Did you have something in mind?"
"I was thinking, maybe we could borrow a UPS truck or FedEx or something."
"You mean just drive up there?" Finn rubbed his chin. "Could work. If there's enough overhang on her house, we could probably park close enough to get out and get in without being seen."
"She'll have other security systems, I'm sure," Jia said, still visibly uncomfortable with this whole idea.
"Professor Stevens has on-site cameras," Alley said, drawing everyone's attention. "I already checked and I already have a workaround for them."
"Well, how will we get inside then? Break in?"
"She's home." Alley just looked at Nate. The expression as reality dawned on him was both amusing and pitiful. "Yeah, I think that's where you come in. If you think you can do it."
Everyone's attention was on the red-head now. He was skinny, much less muscled than Finn, and he looked awkwardly uncomfortable being the subject of scrutiny in the oversized swim trunks he'd turned up with today. Nate opened his mouth and tried to talk casually but the effort was hampered when nothing came out.
Finally, he forced out, "I-I-Sure, sure I can do it."
"You're off leash here, Ginger," Alley said, meeting his eyes and holding him with her focus. "No telepaths making you play nice."
"I d-don't want to hurt her."
"Then don't. We don't want her hurt either. She gets hurt, the mission's fucked. We need you, Nate, to make this work." She leaned closer and grinned. "It's like a raid on one of your MMORPGs, right? Jia's our tank. Finn's our DPS if we need it. I'm like equal parts buffer and debuffer. You're our crowd control. We do this together or we never get another raid again."
Alley punched Finn in the arm before he could make a snarky remark. Jia looked entirely baffled. Nate, on the other hand, just swallowed and nodded. He even managed a shaky smile. "Okay, I'm in. Yeah, I'm in."