Conspiracy, part 2: Hard Lessons

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The Hubbell Research Group had been a frantic hive of activity for several weeks.  Five years was a long time to be idle, and the staff was straining to handle the volume of leads that Barney was producing.  But even with so much work to be done, nobody commented when Jack came in on Friday morning with his usual stack of tabloids.

"Hey Barney."

"Hey Jack."

"The Dog Boy got engaged to the Turtle Girl," he said, flipping through The Snoop.

"I'm certain that will be a fascinating wedding registry.  Anything in the headlines jump out at you?"

"Nothing this week.  How are the matrix thingies coming along?"

Barney didn't even bother to groan.  He'd come to accept that he and Jack were simply different tools for performing different tasks.  "The 'matrix thingies' are coming along pretty well.  Good but not great.  We've got lots of breadth, but very little depth."

Jack furrowed his brow.  "I'm not big on the technical stuff, but isn't that exactly what the demographic correlation matrix is supposed to do?"

Barney smirked.  While it was in his own best interests for people to understand exactly how brilliant he was, Jack was quite good at hiding the extent of his intelligence.  It didn't seem that he was doing it deliberately.  It came too naturally.  There were only a few professions where such a skill was valuable.  And formerly being of one of those professions, Barney knew better than to inquire.  When Jack was ready, he would offer.

"Yes, but it seems you're one of the few who understands the nature of this tool.  Even I can't tell you exactly what it's doing, except that it's doing what Hubbell told me it ought to."  The calculations combined genealogy, birth locations, residence history, and even a bit of numerology and astrology.  Barney's contributions had gone to tuning the weights of various factors to enhance accuracy.  "But I can't tell you how valuable it's been to have the Roth case to back test against."

Dinah walked in carrying a manila envelope.  "Jack, I've got a job for you."

He set down his tabloid.  "Hit me."

"Here's the case file I just got from Unit One.  They're trying to dig up more detailed information on this subject, but they're coming up blank."

Barney looked up, frowning.  "Is there something wrong with data I provided?"

Jack grunted.  "I'm sure your data's fine.  I bet Walter's just got his head--" He caught Dinah's glare.  "--buried in paperwork."  Walter was the head of Unit One, and Barney's old supervisor.  The circumstances of their parting ways had never been explained, and Jack had never asked.  Jack opened the envelope and skimmed Molly Ashton's dossier.

"They want to get a tech close to her, but they need a lot more digging into her personal life," Dinah said.

Jack whistled as he got to the pictures.  "I can imagine why a tech would want to get close.  I'll fly out and see what I can do."  All he needed was a disguise and a chance to strike up conversation.  The best way to get information from people was to ask.  You just had to know how to phrase the question.


On Friday morning Jack had been in the office flipping through tabloids.  On Monday afternoon he had a full report on Molly Ashton delivered to Unit One's office.  Walter was reviewing the report with Jack over the phone.   He was impressed by Jack's analysis, but he didn't care for the conclusion.


"We've got a lot more data on her, but the original determination still stands.  Continue surveillance, get a technician on the ground and insert.  Watch, learn and try to determine if she's actually Gifted."

"But you don't think she'd make a good agent?" Walter asked.

"She'd make an extraordinary agent.  And it's the sort of work that would appeal to her.  But she's not going to leave her life behind to work as a professional balloon."

"Thank you Jack.  This is good work."

Walter leaned back in his chair and groaned.  Another lead, another dead end.  He'd barely survived Hubbell's house cleaning years ago; most of his colleagues had gotten the axe.  Unit Three was almost entirely new staff, and they were doing an excellent job showing just how useless his years of experience were.  "I bet Barney's sending me the crap leads, hoarding the good ones for the Unit Three hotshots," he grumbled.  Barney had never cared for his methods.  Hubbell had banned some of his more controversial tactics, but merely frowned on others.   He wanted results, and Walter's ability to deliver those results was what had kept him around.

"You're not the only one with hotshots at your disposal."  Walter had never gotten accustomed to taking no for an answer, so he turned to the report to find a way to change it into a yes.  He'd only read the summary.  The full report went on for many, many pages.  Jack had managed to unearth a surprising number of intimate details about about Molly's life.  He even managed to get a good deal of information about her boyfriend, right down to the medication he was taking.  This piqued Walter's interest, since Molly Ashton was married.  Jack hadn't mentioned the affair in his report summary.  There was no reason to, it was irrelevant to the conclusions.  But it was of great interest to Walter.

"There, that's what I need."  He worked through the night combing over every detail and formulating a plan.  In the morning, he met with Samuel.

Samuel walked in.  "You called, sir?"

"Sam, I want to bring you in on the Ashton case."

Sam was confused.  "I thought Richard was still doing recon on that one.  He's scheduled to go on site in a few weeks."  Sam was a high-end technician.  He used to be a covert agent for the CIA, but his ethics were a bit too flexible even for them.  There were always better uses for his time than doing basic surveillance work, and Walter had come up with just such a use.

"He is."  Walter handed him the Ashton report along with his own notes.  "Which means you have a few weeks to make this happen.  And make sure that it never happened.  Regardless of whether you succeed, neither Richard nor anyone else can ever know you were there."

"Got it, boss."  Samuel took the folder and left.


Ms. Ashton walked through the classroom handing out stapled packets of paper.  "Alright everyone, here are the instructions for today's lab.  You should have all of the required equipment at your stations, you'll find the chemicals set out on the table in the back.  Please observe standard precautions, and let's not dally.  While you're doing that, I'll be prepping a very special surprise demonstration.  It's quite spectacular and more than a little dangerous.  There is a small risk of an explosion occurring, so I'll have to ask you all to keep a safe distance.  But believe me, you won't have any trouble seeing this reaction from your work benches."  She smiled as her students murmured excitedly.  She was fond of dazzling her students with loud bangs and bursts of flame.  Other teachers frowned upon her methods, but she'd been remarkably good at keeping students engaged.

Of course, Molly Ashton's teaching style wasn't the only thing that drew disapproving glares, nor was it the only thing that kept the students engaged.  The beautiful blonde had drawn her fair share of longing gazes from students and faculty alike.  She'd been told on numerous occasions to tone down her wardrobe, and she'd complied up to a point.  Her sharply tailored blouses and skirts didn't show off her voluptuous figure, but did little to hide her curves either.

She paused at one of the lab stations.  "Here you go, Donald," she chirped.  "We covered this reaction last session, just remember our lessons and you should be fine."  Donald was a remarkably bright boy, but for some reason he had trouble grasping chemistry.  Ms. Ashton had been tutoring him after school to help him along, and he'd made a great deal of progress.

"Thanks, Ms. Ashton," he said meekly.  He was small, quiet, and still quite shy around her in spite of, or perhaps even because of, the one on one time they'd spent together.  She gave him a warm smile, and he quickly looked away.

Donald's friend Lori nudged him as Ms. Ashton moved on.  "I think she likes you, Donald."

"Stop it," Donald replied, blushing.  Like every other boy in the class, he dreamed of getting something more than academic attention from Ms. Ashton, but would never admit it aloud.

Lori was teasing him, but deep down was pleased by the thought; she loved Ms. Ashton.  Lori was a rather plain redhead and would have been entirely unremarkable had puberty not hit with a vengeance her freshman year.  Now as a senior she was often the target of jokes and abuse because of her unusually large bust, surpassing even Ms. Ashton in size.

Ms. Ashton had apparently had similar experiences when she was in high school, so the two had bonded instantly.  Lori was also one of the students that she'd chosen for mentoring.  Lori didn't really need help with chemistry as she was quite brilliant. But Ms. Ashton had helped her in so many other ways.  She'd inspired Lori to be more confident. Once she'd taught Lori to embrace and treasure her endowments, be they mental or physical, Lori was better able to make use of her talents and excel in the classroom. Lori idolized her, and dreamed of one day being able to wield the kind of power that Ms. Ashton had over most of the males she met.


Samuel glanced down at his watch has he loaded a pair of tanks onto the dolly.  Timing was crucial, so he had to keep his cool.  Luckily, cool was Samuel's specialty.  He attached a hose to one of the tanks and coiled it around the valve.  He took a deep breath and pushed the dolly into the main school building, towards Chemistry Lab #2.


There was a problem, but it was a minor one.  Ms. Ashton could have easily made it go away by just signing on the dotted line, but she'd been having a rough week and was having far too much fun flirting with the delivery man.  He was several years younger than herself, and had that clean-cut, fresh-faced look that she loved so.  And he was one of the few people she'd ever seen who actually looked good in those silly shorts.

"Listen, um," she glanced at his name tag, "Malcolm.  I ordered carbon dioxide for today's lesson, and it should have arrived yesterday.  This is a chemistry class, I can't even imagine what possible use I could have for helium."  She was about to explain that helium is an inert gas, but realized her teaching tendency was of little use here. 

"Please ma'am, just sign for the tanks," he said, feigning annoyance.  He was enjoying her drawing out the conflict as well.  He was looking right past the clipboard at her impressive cleavage.  Her blue silk blouse was just slightly too small for her disproportionately large bust, and her buttons were strained.  "Clearly it's not your mistake, but they're already ordered and paid for and I get in trouble if a delivery gets rejected."

She pursed her full lips in a thoughtful pout, returning his leering gaze.  "But if I sign for these, how will I get my CO2?"

While Malcolm assumed that she wouldn't have been nearly so brazen had her class not been largely distracted, he did briefly wonder how anybody thought it was a good idea to let such a woman anywhere near hormone-laden high schoolers.  It just made his job easier.  "How bout this?  I'll just leave the tanks for now.  You give me a number I can reach you at, and I'll call you once we figure out what happened to your shipment.  I'll bring your tanks, and we can swap."  He flashed a smile, and Ms. Ashton giggled.

"Alright."  There would be no demonstration today it seemed.  She wrote a brief message on his pad.  "That second one's my cell number," she said with a wink.

Matthew came in just in time to see the end of their flirty exchange.  The delivery man was looking over his shoulder back at Ms. Ashton when he bumped into Matt on his way out.

"Whoah, sorry kid, didn't see ya there.  I was a bit distracted."  He gave Matt a knowing nudge.  "Damn, they didn't make teachers like that at my high school."

"Probably not," Matt said, trying to laugh to cover his simmering rage.  Ms. Ashton was bent over her desk, her breasts squeezed tightly into her blouse.  She was a goddess.  All of the boys in school fantasized about her, but he was the only one who'd ever gotten beyond the fantasy.  At least that was what Matt had thought before today.

"Man, look at those tits.  They're so huge, it's like she's got a coupla balloons under there."  He suddenly caught himself.  "Sorry dude, I should be more professional."

"That's alright, we've all thought about it," Matt replied distantly.  Sheesh, this guy can't be more than a few years older than I am.  He looked at Malcolm and couldn't help but notice the resemblance between the two of them.  He glanced down at the man's clipboard and saw that Ms. Ashton had signed not just her name, but her phone number as well.

"Cool, man, have a good one."  Malcolm left the lab whistling.  Matthew walked up to the front of the classroom.

She didn't see him approach.  He tapped her shoulder gently.  "Molly," he said, his voice low.

She jumped.  "Matthew," she hissed, "you can't call me that in front of other students.  Or ever again.  What are you doing here?  You're not even in this class."  She glanced about nervously to see if anyone was paying attention to them.

"I got your note," he said.  "How can you do this to me?"

They stood close to each other and kept their voices quiet.  As long as he didn't make a scene, he was as good as invisible.  Most of the students were far too busy setting up test tubes and measuring out chemicals.  Those few who were paying any attention to the front of the room tended to focus on Ms. Ashton rather than him.

"Principal Tate suspects there's something going on.  We have to end it."

"I'm eighteen, there's nothing illegal about it."

Molly's tone and countenance grew stern.  "Matthew, you're a student, and I'm a teacher.  A married teacher.  If this gets out, I'll lose my job, my teaching credentials, and probably my husband."

"But I love you," Matt pleaded.

"You're young," Molly said, sounding almost motherly.  "You'll find someone else, I'm certain of it.  Someone you can actually be with."

While you're banging the deliveryman?  Matthew grew frantic as the finality of things set in.  "I'll tell," he said.  "I'll tell everyone.  Then it'll all be out, and it won't matter because nobody'll be able to do anything about it."

Molly's patience ran out.  "So what?" she hissed between clenched teeth.  "You'll say you've been screwing the chemistry teacher.  I'll deny it, I'll say you're just some lovestruck kid with an overactive imagination.  You don't have any proof, it'll be your word against mine.  Nobody will believe that I deigned to seduce a little boy like you.  And right now I'm seriously questioning why I ever did."  She stood firm and stood tall, her posture accentuating her provocative figure.  Matt gazed at her longingly, remember their early flirtations, that first kiss, his fumbling explorations of her delightful flesh.

He began to tremble as he was overwhelmed by grief and rage.  "Molly--"

"It's over," she snapped, returning to her class notes.  "Now get out before this gets any messier than it has to be."

Matt turned away, fighting back tears.  His face turned bright red as he noticed several students glancing warily in his direction and whispering to each other.  They knew something was going on.  I have to get outta here.  He was about to leave when he saw the tanks.  Shiny, new, and freshly filled by the looks of the gauges.  One of them even had a hose already attached.

The feeling of peace was as sudden as it was strange.  Matt's hands were steady, his face calm, the pounding in his chest eased.  Unspeakable thoughts took root in his mind, but he found them relaxing.  He'd decided to take action.  A moment ago he was helpless.  A moment ago he was a victim.  A moment from now he would be neither; she would be both.

Molly looked up at the loud hissing noise to see that Matt had opened the valve on one of the tanks.  "What on earth are you doing?" she asked, incredulous.

"This."  He grabbed her and shoved the hose deep down her throat.  The effect was immediate; her belly rapidly filled with gas, resembling full pregnancy in mere moments.  Her blouse came untucked and bulged over the waistband of her skirt.

"Mmmmrrgh!"  Molly's shriek was muffled by the hose.  Several buttons on her blouse popped open and her gut surged forth.  She grabbed the hose with both hands and tried to pull it out, but Matthew grabbed her wrists and held them in place.  He was too strong, she couldn't move.  Her eyes grew wide as she felt the pressure build inside, her belly growing firm and stiff.

By now, many of the students had noticed what was going on at the front of the classroom.  "Wow," Lori marveled.  "Looks like Ms. Ashton has one hell of a demonstration planned."

But while Lori and the others were focused on just how huge Ms. Ashton had swelled, Donald saw the interaction between her and Matt, the terror in her eyes.  "I -- I don't think she planned this," he said uneasily, fear bubbling up his spine.

Matt noticed that he and Molly were now the focus of attention.  With so many students around, one of them was bound to make an attempt at being a hero.  He'd fix that.  Not relaxing a bit on his grip on Molly and the hose, he turned to the class and grinned.  "You might wanna get outta here," he shouted.  "There's gonna be one hell of a bang when she blows!"

For a moment the entire class was stunned into silence.  The only sounds were the hissing of the tank and Molly's muffled cries for help.  She tried to make eye contact, spur someone into action, but it was no use. 

Stephanie was the trigger.  Like everyone else, she realized what was happening, what was about to happen, and she cracked.  "Oh my God, she's gonna explode!"

Matt's announcement had had the desired effect.  In a clamor of screams and dropping lab equipment, those few students who weren't rooted in place by fright made a mass, panicked, chaotic flight towards the exit.

I'm gonna die, Molly thought, looking on hopelessly as her students fled.  She knew it didn't take all that much to rupture a person's internal organs, and the high pressure tanks would easily do it if she couldn't get the hose out in the next few seconds.  The mounting pain of being so forcibly stretched made each second seem like an eternity.

Just as Molly felt her consciousness retreating from the increasing agony, she felt something shift inside her.  It was an odd sensation, as though she'd stretched beyond some critical point.  She felt something inside her give; the excruciating pain subsided and the sense of pressure suddenly receded.  For a moment she assumed that she was exploding, but the truth was only slightly less frightening.  Her body shuddered, then rushed outward.

"Mmmrghff!" she groaned as her back arched and she lost her grip on the hose.  Her skirt split down the front and fell to the ground, the swelling spreading outward from her belly into her extremities.

Matt looked on with a mixture of annoyance and amazement as her breasts plumped up with gas.  "You make a better balloon than I thought you would," he sneered.

The remaining buttons on her blouse popped off in rapid succession, her exposed bosom straining against the confines of her bra.  Molly struggled to get her hands back onto the hose but was thwarted by her continued expansion.  Her arms swelled up, growing plump and stiff.  They stuck out straight from her body and she could no longer bend them.  Her hips widened and her thighs grew thicker, forcing her to widen her stance.  Her stockings hissed and popped as her growing legs ripped them apart.  Her bra had held on admirably, cinching into her bloated form, but the hooks finally conceded with a loud snap and left the garment hanging limp on her chest. Molly's entire body was inflating, and she grew bigger and rounder with each passing moment.

Molly's mind was torn between fear and disbelief.  Her skin was pulled tight, her body pumped up into a near spherical shape.  Everything she knew told her that what was happening was impossible, that she should have been torn apart.  She wondered what could make such a transformation possible and, more importantly, at what point it would stop.

But the flow of helium was relentless, and she blew up bigger and bigger.  Her huge breasts, once her dominating feature, were stretched out into wide domes across her chest.  Each passing moment left her looking less like a woman and more like an overinflated toy. 

She could just barely see over her own swollen cheeks.  Matt's face was twisted in rage.  "Come on, pop!  Pop, dammit!"  Molly scanned the classroom, eyes pleading for help, desperately hoping that someone would do something, anything to save her.  A few students still stood frozen at their benches but the rest were all clamoring in a frantic mass at the door as they tried to flee the imminent explosion.  It was hopeless.

I can't take any more.  Please, just let this be over quick.

Ms. Ashton was nearly completely round, her taut skin flushing pink as it strained against the pressure.  Matt grinned with wicked glee.  His face fell as the hissing subsided.

The tank was empty.

"Dammit!"  But his frustration quickly faded; he still had another tank.  He grabbed it and dragged it towards Molly.  He was about to hook up the hose to the second tank when he noticed two security guards trying to force their way through the logjam of fleeing students to get into the classroom.   He angrily yanked the hose from Molly's mouth.

"Matt, security's here.  It's over."  She was finally able to speak and tried to sound firm and commanding, but her voice was shaking.

"I guess that means we're both outta time," he replied.  "Don't worry, Molly, this won't take long."  He grabbed a beaker from the nearest work bench and smashed the end of it.

"No," she gasped.

"Sorry, Molly, it's too late for second chances."  He picked up the business card from her desk.  "Maybe I should call Malcolm and thank him for making this possible."

"Matthew, please!" Molly sobbed, her eyes locked on the jagged remains of the beaker in Matt's hand.  "Please, don't do this!  I'm begging you!"

"I begged you, and it didn't work.  But you were right about one thing.  This is going to be a lot messier than it has to be," he smirked, raising the beaker.


Matt turned towards the sudden outburst behind him.  The last thing he saw was a brass plaque engraved with the words "MOLLY ASHTON, TEACHER of the YEAR".  Then darkness.

"I -- I can't believe I just did that," Donald gasped.  His hands were shaking.  He'd never hit anything that hard in his life.  He dropped the trophy and stood staring at Matt's crumpled, unconscious body.

Molly started weeping with relief.  "Thank you, Donald.  Thank you."

The guards finally forced their way to the front of the classroom.  They stared at Molly in disbelief.  Her body was a enormous, swollen parody of its natural self.    "Holy crap," one gasped.

Lori rushed forward carrying one of the lab's fire blankets.  "Stop gawking and do something!" she snapped at them as she tried to give Ms. Ashton at least a little bit of coverage.  "Don't worry, Mrs. Ashton.  You're going to be alright."  Lori looked over Molly's unbelievably distended body, took her best guess as to roughly where her shoulder was, and placed a reassuring hand there to try to console her.  She had to stifle a gasp at how firm Molly was; her skin felt like the surface of a volleyball.

"Help me," Molly said, clearly struggling to get the words out through lips that were many times their normal size.  "I feel like I'm gonna burst."

Lori struggled to come up with something encouraging to say, but came up blank.  Molly's skin was frighteningly taut, not yielding in the slightest to Lori's touch.  Lori found herself agreeing with Ms. Ashton's evaluation; she really did feel like she could explode at any moment.

One of the guards was putting handcuffs on Matt in case he woke up.  The other was calling for emergency assistance.  "The ambulance is on its way," he said.  "What the hell happened in here?"

"Matt, he took the hose, and he, he," Donald stammered gesturing to Molly and the spent helium tank.

Molly clenched her eyes shut as her belly trembled with an ominous rumble.  Her body quivered, expanding ever so slightly while emitting a tortured groan. 

"Shit, she's gonna blow!"  The guards slowly stepped back.  "We have to clear the room, son.  It's not safe for us to be in here."  The officer grabbed Donald by the shoulder and pushed him toward the door.

"You've got to get out of here," Molly sobbed.

"No!  I can't leave you like this!" Donald shouted.

"Donald," Lori snapped, "just what do you intend to do?  She's right, we have to go."   She turned to Molly.  "I'm so sorry, Ms. Ashton."

A slow, soft creaking filled the air as Molly's skin strained, failed slightly and swelled again.   "I know.  Now go, hurry!"


Samuel had been gone for ten days.  Walter had heard nothing from him, but that was to be expected.  He knew something must have happened when he got a call from Richard, the lead technician on the case.

"She's gone, sir."  Richard was shaken.

"Excuse me?"

"They evacuated the entire school yesterday.  There was a gas leak in the chemistry lab, but no mention of anyone getting hurt.  Ashton wasn't there the next day, and nobody's talking about it.  She's just gone, they disappeared her.  My guess is someone discovered she was sleeping with a student, and they decided a major event would be good cover for making her go away."

"Any idea where she is?" Walter asked.

"None yet."

"Keep me posted, Richard.  This woman was an excellent prospect, I don't want to lose track of her."

Samuel returned later that day to give his report in person.  There would be no paperwork for this one.  He described what had happened to Molly in as much detail as he himself knew.  He'd put as much distance as possible between himself and the school once he'd left.  "If it turned out that she wasn't actually Gifted, then the outcome would have been -- unfortunate," Samuel said.  "As it is, Matt was able to blow her up much larger than I expected.  I'd assumed that somebody would stop him more quickly, but he was much better at crowd control than I gave him credit for.  If one of the students hadn't acted, then gifted or not Molly would have exploded."

"Yes, this operation was inherently risky.  But your performance was extraordinary.  Any news of the aftermath?" Walter asked.

"It seems there are some very influential people on the school's Board of Trustees.  The whole story's been buried.  They made up some story about a gas leak in the chemistry lab to get everyone off campus.  They knocked out a wall and got Ms. Ashton out after dark.  All of the students involved have been warned not to discuss the matter."

"And how is Ms. Ashton doing?"  Walter's interest seemed far more clinical than sympathetic.

"She's been relocated to a clinic that specializes in unconventional ailments.  The doctors are stumped as to how they should treat her.  Apparently she's under an enormous amount of pressure and there's still a chance she could blow."  Sam didn't seem too worried.  "Her life is in shambles now.  With her affair exposed, her husband is divorcing her and her career is over.  Assuming she survives, she'll be a prime candidate for recruitment."

"And since this is our case, I'll be first in line to be her handler.  Excellent."  Walter agreed with Jack's assessment that Molly would make an extraordinary agent.  With her working for Unit One, his position in the organization would be quite secure.  "We need to make sure she remains receptive to recruitment.  It's unlikely she'll be able return to any semblance of a normal life, but she's resourceful enough that she might surprise us."

"Yes, sir."

It irritated Walter that he had to be so secretive.  Hubbell should have realized long ago that sane and happy people didn't sign up to be agents.  You had to be desperate or crazy.  Making people crazy was difficult, but making them desperate was easy if you knew which buttons to push.  And if he had to destroy a prospect's life to make her an agent, then so be it.

Walter leaned back in his chair and permitted himself a satisfied sigh.  He'd taken Molly Ashton from "low probability" to "prime candidate" in less than two weeks.  "Walter's back in business," he said to himself smugly.  "And the rest of HRG had best stand up and take notice."

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