Setting The Pieces
Jackie held herself erect by sheer force of will. Others – most people, truth be told – would wither beneath Chandini’s ire, but she would not allow herself to.
She would not.
“…And that is all we know, ma’am.” Jackie’s supervisor, Viktor Gorshkov, finished the briefing in his usual clipped tones. He managed to keep any hint of emotion out of his words, despite the fact that he was probably at least as embarrassed as Jackie. She had always admired that about him. A consummate professional, Viktor was.
On the wall monitor, Chandini’s scowl deepened, which Jackie would not have thought possible a moment ago. “This situation is unnaceptable, Agent Gorshkov.”
“Yes, ma’am.” What else was there to say?
Chandini’s gaze left Vicktor and came to rest upon Jackie. She felt a trickle of sweat run down her back and almost let her shoulders slumped at the fire in the Deputy Director’s eyes. Not so long ago, those eyes had been warm, congratulatory as Chandini praised Jackie’s efforts and went on at length about how bright a future she had.
So much for that.
Chandini’s lips pursed for a moment, and Jackie could see the wheels spinning in her head. “Agent Moore.”
Jackie stiffened, trying to not look terrified. Here it came.
“You are no longer Agent in charge of this case.” It was not unexpected, but hearing the words from the Deputy Director’s lips still stung. But that would not be the worst. Chandini continued, “I am taking personal command. I will board a sub-orbital transport ten minutes after the end of this conversation and will be in Quito in two hours.”
Jackie could not remember when she had been so surprised. Chandini was coming here? To assume control personally? And to use a sub-orbital ride… Those were expensive, more costly than standard subsonic aircraft, anyway. NSA travel regulations stipulated subsonic transport except for the highest of emergencies, and even then Viktor, as Section Head, could not just sign off on it – it had to be approved from headquarters. Of course, Chandini was headquarters. But still…
This was a high profile case. Maybe the highest profile case, ever. It should not have surprised Jackie that the Deputy Director would pull out all the stops now that things were going haywire, but it did.
Chandini was saying something else; Jackie missed it in the whirl of surprised thoughts for a moment. “I’m sorry, ma’am?”
Chandini looked askance at her – in truth she had not been looking at her in any other way the entire time, but it just got worse. “Assemble your team, Agent Moore. They must be ready to deploy as soon as I arrive.”
The Deputy Director just looked at her silently for a second. Then the monitor went dark, as abrupt an end to a conversation as Jackie could recall in any professional setting.
This was going to be ugly. But at least she was still on the case, still had a job.
In fact, Chandini had not mentioned anything of disciplinary action against her at all. Neither had Viktor.
Slowly, hope and relief welled up within her. They were not going to lop her head off after all. Jackie turned her head away from the monitor to see Viktor grinning at her.
“I told you not to worry,” he said, the clipped professional tone he used with Chandini punctuated with more warmth now. It ought to be; they had worked together long enough.
“You did.” But she still could not believe it. Why the parole? She new better than to ask. And besides, she knew the answer anyway. She was already read in. She knew the people involved and had some experience with how they operated. And she had a personal stake in making sure this thing turned out the way it was supposed to. She had value, still, and Chandini was never one to waste a resource.
“Get your people ready,” Viktor said. “Things are about to get very busy around here.”
* * * * *
Jo had not stopped pacing for hours. At least it felt that way. She did not look at her watch to verify the notion, though. She knew without looking that it would more than confirm her estimate. She had been in what fashioned for a medical waiting room for half a day now, she knew that without any doubt at all.
It was just amusing, or at least felt less pathetic, to tell herself she had only been pacing for a short while and was exaggerating to herself in the midst of her stress.
The analytical part of her mind, the professional part, the part that had seen her through countless stressful scenarios and one or two life-or-death situations over the years, screamed out at her that she was being foolish. Time passes as it will, and she was stupid to deny it. And even more stupid to waste energy in a fruitless exercise. She knew that part of her mind was right, but that mattered not.
She continued to pace.
As she did her small, five-step circuit of the waiting area – not so long ago it had been a small receptionist area where an overly-pompous small business owner could put on aires of importance by having his admin keep potential clients waiting in seats that were just a little too narrow while the climate control kept the room just a little bit too warm. All the better to wear them down before the negotiation got started.
Or at least that’s how Jo envisioned the scenario taking place as she paced around. Of course, that notion almost certainly had no relation to the reality of what went on in the office space that the Underground – CFL seemed even more trite, so Jo refused to even think it – leased out.
The office space was in a small commercial building – a different one than Isaac had brought Jo to initially after the escape from the NSA agents – and adjoined a moderately sized park. Jo would have preferred the park not be there. Better a bit more inconvenience on their part getting back and forth from base than to risk children’s lives because of their impatience. But then, no one had consulted her on the choice.
Jo stopped before the room’s lone window and peered out, her mind whirling through the day’s events as she watched the branches in the trees across the street wave in the breeze.
It was hard to believe the recovery had gone so smoothly, almost like clockwork. Not a very few small details varied from the way they had planned it out, and almost before she realized it they were wheeling Becky into the back office, where a medic was waiting. She would undoubtedly be disoriented and, if her experienced came close to matching Jo’s, probably hungry and sleep-deprived.
But none of those things required hours of treatment. Well, except sleep. Jo had not seen anyone in quite some time, since a short black-haired man she had never seen before came in to deliver a tray of food. No one told her whether to stay in the waiting area or leave. But Jo could not bring herself to do either.
Damnit, what the hell was going on?
She turned away from the window to resume her pacing, her hands curling into fists as irritation welled up within her. It was well past time she get off her duff and find out something about their status.
And so, naturally, that was when the door from the inner office – the medical room, whatever – opened.
Malcolm and Pedro stepped into the room. Both of them looked exhausted, their clothing rumpled, though Pedro’s jeans and short-sleeved green collared shirt faired far worse that Malcolm’s black jumpsuit from the raid. But worse than that, they were dejected. Malcolm managed a smile of greeting, though it did not pass to his eyes.
“Is she…?” Jo almost feared to hear it, from the looks on their faces, but she had to know.
Malcolm sighed and flopped into one of the too-narrow chairs that Jo had specifically opted not to use. “Becky is ok. But…”
“But,” Pedro interrupted, “she was heavily drugged for the transfer and from appearances was not treated very well before that. She’s been in and out of consciousness for the last couple hours, but she finally became coherent just a few minutes ago.”
Jo could almost feel the ball beginning to drop. “So what did she…”
Malcolm sighed, a sound of defeat if ever Jo heard one. He slumped forward, looking down at the floor. “She told them where the backup drives were stored. She tried to hold out, but…” He shook his head.
That certainly put a damper on things. “Damn,” Jo said, which was putting it mildly.
“You could say that,” Pedro said. The young man ran his hand through his hair and glanced back at the door to the recovery room, his lips drawing downward into a scowl. Then he, too, sighed. “I’m not sure what to tell you. That’s that, I guess.”
Jo got a hollow feeling in the pit of her stomach. “What are you saying, Pedro?”
Pedro looked back at her and Jo found herself retreating a half-step before she realized it. His gaze was…almost venomous. “I’m saying we’re done here. This whole project was a bad idea from the start, but now…” He shook his head. “That was our last play. There’s nothing more we can do. Now we need to focus on rebuilding the organization, recovering from the hits we’ve taken.”
“You can’t be serious. You’re going to let this happen?” Jo shook her head in denial, but Pedro’s expression did not budge in the least. A dreadful realization came over her – he had meant every word. “My God, you are, aren’t you. Why the hell did you even get involved in the first place if you’re just going to pull out when it gets a little difficult?”
Pedro snorted and made a disdainful gesture toward Malcolm. “Wasn’t up to me, Captain. Your silver-tongued friend there won Becky over, and Lars was not far behind. I didn’t make the decisions then.” He drew himself up and just then he seemed to tower. “I do now. And we have enough human problems, injustices that affect actual people, not some critters from,” he waved his hand upwards toward the ceiling, “up there. We don’t need to expend resources that we can’t afford to lose on something like this.” His eyes narrowed at her, dangerously. “Especially now, after all the damage that’s been done.”
There it was. She had caught glimpses of it from time to time, but now it was laid bare for all to see. Pedro did not care about the alien babies; they were just animals to him, worth as much as a household cat. Less. He would probably have loved to sign up to work at that damned lab.
The hollow feeling in her stomach became a burning rage at Pedro’s callous indifference. His short-sightedness. She took a step toward him, her fists once more clenched. “You can’t be that stupid. They are much more advanced than us. When they learn what we did to their – “
Pedro snorted again. “How are they ever going to learn about it?”
Jo returned the snort. “Secrets this big never stay hidden. You of all people should know that, considering the company you keep.”
“And we’ll deal with it then, as a people. But in the meantime there are more important issues to tackle.” Pedro’s stare could freeze a cup of coffee in a second. “You’ve cost us a lot of trouble, Captain. You and Malcolm.” He glanced aside toward Malcolm and, if anything, his gaze hardened. “We’ve wasted resources, lost equipment, lost people… I’ve half a mind to turn you both in.”
Malcolm rose to his feet. His eyes widened and his expression, resigned, almost defeated before, became suddenly alarmed. “Pedro,” he began, his voice shaking. Jo had never heard him speak with such a note of fear in his words before.
Pedro raised a hand toward Malcolm, a gesture Jo presumed was meant to be soothing. “But we all know the NSA won’t stop with just you two. Not now, if ever. Turning you in would not help us.” He snorted out a bitter-sounding laugh. “Hell, it would probably hurt us more, because you would tell them everything you know about us.” He glanced between the two of them. “Wouldn’t you?”
“Damn right I would,” Jo said through clenched teeth, her rage reduced, but still smoldering within her.
“So,” Pedro said, “that leaves us at a bit of an impasse. What to do with the two of you?” He crossed his arms over his chest and raise his left hand to his chin. The index finger tapped idly at his chin as he paused and pondered.
Jo did not trust herself not to flay the boy – he was acting like a boy, whatever his actual age – alive with her tongue. Instead, she managed, in the calm tone she reserved for subordinates who had screwed up royally but who could not be taken to task immediately, to ask, “Have you discussed any of this with Becky?”
Malcolm shook his head quickly, shooting Jo a warning glance.
Pedro either did not notice or did not care. He fixed his gaze fully on Jo and smirked. “What Becky thinks no longer matters. She has been compromised. Until and unless she can be proven not to be turned, or at least to not be a hinderance to our operations, she is no longer in charge. I was next in line, so…” His smirk became a satisfied grin and his eyebrow quirked upward meaningfully.
Son of a bitch. Jo had no response to that.
The silence stretched out for a long several seconds. Then Pedro nodded to himself as though he had settled something in his mind. “I think we are through.”
“You already said that,” Jo began, but she trailed off when she noticed the stricken expression on Malcolm’s face.
Pedro sniffed in disdain. “No, I mean we are through with the two of you. Citizens for Liberty will no longer participate in your little crusade.” He snapped his fingers in the air beside his head, and the door behind Jo – the one leading out into the hallway of the building that housed their new hideout – swung open. Two burly men whom Jo recognized from the planning and preparation for the jailbreak walked into the room and took up station on either side of the door, arms crossed over their chests in an intimidating manner.
“These gentlemen will escort you out and give you sufficient funds to set yourselves up somewhere.” He affixed first Jo and then Malcolm with a hard stare. “Do not try to contact us again.”
He turned on his heel and walked back toward the inner door.
“You’re not worried we’ll go to the Feds?”
Pedro chuckled softly at Jo’s question. Of course they would not go to the Feds. If they did, they would just be dooming themselves. Sure, they could cause some damage to the CFL, but they themselves would never see the outside of a cell again. If they were even that lucky. The CFL would not turn them in, but they had no reason to fear Jo and Malcolm doing so themselves.
The rage re-ignited from its smolder, burning with an intensity that could melt steel. “You son of a bitch!”
The only reply to Jo’s outburst was the solid – and final – click of the door swinging shut behind Pedro.
* * * * *
I hope you enjoyed this chapter of The Pericles Conspiracy. Stay tuned in a few days for the next chapter, or, if you don’t want to bother waiting a couple months to read the rest book, you can always go buy it (it’s available in ebook and trade paperback) from Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Kobo, Smashwords, or iTunes.