The Emperor's Jewel

Alex Hardison roughly pushed his favorite laptop computer across the counter. Almost immediately he reached for the customized piece of machinery and murmured an apology for careless treatment. It was an automatic gesture for a man whose very livelihood depended on such technology.

For most of the morning, the apartment had been filled with the sound of his rapidfire typing. Alec had been doing Internet searches nonstop. Now, though, the apartment echoed with silence. It wasn't that he was unsuccessful in his searching. No, the young hacker extraordinaire found more than enough replies to his queries. But today more than ever Alec was feeling a mounting sense of frustration that those replies contained nothing new. He had performed those particular searches several times a day since the meteor had been detected and not even the hint of a solution had appeared.

Alec could not reconcile the lack of information with what he was accustomed to. It was the 'age of the geek', as he proudly proclaimed to anyone listening. If nothing else, denizens of the Internet could be counted on to throw themselves into the search for answers to any subject that the experts deemed impossible. Why then, hadn't –

Alec froze. He strained the limits of his hearing to intercept and decipher anything audible within the apartment. He was more attuned to the world around him thanks to the other members of his crew. He hoped that the almost inaudible rustle he heard was his teammate Parker traveling as she often did through the ductwork high above him.

It wasn't Parker.

A part of Alec had known. It hadn't stopped him from hoping. He hadn't been face to face with his crew since that night when he maneuvered them into coming to the apartment to break the news of the meteor before the world found out the next day. Alec had called the others to the apartment in Nate's name knowing that they would come without question. He had treasured the give-and-take of the group’s teasing and easy camaraderie as long as he could before sitting them down and upending their world.

The young hacker told them the bare, unvarnished truth. Most of it. Including how long he had known and kept the truth from them. Alec still couldn't decide which had been more difficult to hear - the stunned, betrayed silence or the seething, cutting anger.

Even at their most angry, the other members of the crewe grudgingly acknowledged the weight of Alec’s decision to grant them the past year’s blissful ignorance. But it did not change the fact that they felt betrayed. It took more than a month for the individual members of the team to accept his attempts to reach out. Alec tracked them all (except Parker) and tried again to explain. They still weren't ready to hear his reasons.

When Sophie called three months later with a softly uttered ‘You were wrong’, Alec took heart in the call. He knew that the words were both condemnation and the beginning of forgiveness. Nate Ford might have been the acknowledged mastermind and leader of their little group of grifters and thieves, but Sophie Devereaux was its pulse. She would make the others see that what Alec did, he did out of love.

Still, reconciliation was slow to come. The others were more upset about the fact that Alec lied than they were about the reason he lied. Nate was angry that he had not picked up any hint of deception on Alec’s part. Eliot was angry that the young hacker had usurped Eliot’s role as protector of the group. And Parker...well, Parker had a thing about family lying to one another.

If he was being honest with himself, Alec thought there was also a bit of disbelief among the crewe that maybe he wasn't the lightweight team member they all saw him. It was a running joke between the others, a reminder with each job to make sure that someone 'kept an eye' on Alec. It bothered him at first, but over time he had simply learned to put it out of his head. He knew that he had taken care of himself long before their crewe of grifters and thieves met. Hell, he had taken care of his Nana and all the other foster kids passing through her home.

Alec froze again as he heard another rustle overhead. This time he tapped a few keys on his keyboard and activated the alarm system he had installed and refined just a year ago. There had been nothing wrong with the previous system. Alec just needed to correct a couple of flaws in the programming. Mainly that he had not accounted for his crew and their talents. Alec deliberately designed the updated software to allow for Sophie's skill with a set of lock-picks, Parker's stealth and flexibility, and Elliot's pure power.

The alarm’s interface didn't show anything unusual. Alec was glad. As badly as he wanted to see the others, he did not want them anywhere around when he made this particular call. The last thing he needed was for one of them to take an interest in a man as powerful -or rich- as this one. Nate was already making quiet inquiries of his own about the identities of the other people who had been in on the secret with Alec from the start. Alec remained firm in his decision not to supply any names, a decision that did not sit well with the team. Especially not after he had just promised full disclosure from then on in.

Alec took a deep breath and squared his shoulders. This was a conversation he should have been having first with his fellow computer maven, Red. He was pretty sure she wouldn't appreciate his decision to contact her husband instead. But in this instance, it was better to be safe than sorry. Especially when said husband warned Alec that for his health he should make sure he had no reason to be sorry where Red was concerned.

A quiet, cultured 'Hello' from the laptop speaker made Alec sit up ramrod straight in his chair. "Uh, yeah... I just called to warn you about something I picked up on the dark web." The dark web was the unregulated portion of the Internet where anything was allowable, legal or not. "It was just a fragment of a shielded communication, but it was pretty straightforward. Someone out there is offering a hell of a big reward to anybody who can snatch someone from a list of people and turn them over alive.”

There was such silence following Alec's statement that he discreetly checked the laptop's connection. "Am I to understand,” the reply, when it came, was deceptively calm, “that I am one of those listed?"

"No…," Alec shook his head though the gesture could not be seen, "Red is. Faith Ward Cassadine. Right at the top of the list.”





Home | Next