By Suz and A. X. Zanier
Early January, a few years from now...
John F. Kennedy, in one of his many awe-inspiring speeches for the masses, gave us this wondrous pearl of wisdom, "For in the final analysis, our most basic common link is that we all inhabit this small planet, we all breathe the same air, we all cherish our children's futures, and we are all mortal."
Just turns out some of us are slightly more mortal than others.
The room was painted what could only be described as battleship green. There were even the mandatory calming and uplifting pieces of someone's hideous vision of art upon the walls. Around the edges were the overly comfortable looking couches that did little more than encourage one to sit and wallow in them, worry etching brows as one shifted every few minutes out of a need to do something, anything, even though those seated knew there was nothing they could do.
That is, unless you were Darien Fawkes, who sat slumped against the armrest, one hand planted firmly under his chin as support, starring off into the distance while humming some off-key tune under his breath. Waiting was plainly nothing new to him. Waiting to break into a place, waiting to see if he got away clean, waiting for the next mission, waiting to see if he'd go mad again.
Darien had probably perfected the art of waiting. Eberts could only do his poor best to emulate him, standing stiffly in place, hands behind his back in a corner that looked like it had once held a table or perhaps a plant that had since been moved. Hobbes was slowly pacing the room, his phone out and stuck to his ear as he tried to keep atop of what was going on with Chrysalis via his various connections. There wasn't much to find out as most of the maneuvering was taking place behind the scenes in DC and New York City. The Official had gotten the ball rolling. Those with far more skills in diplomacy had swiftly taken over, and the one thing that needed to be done had been. The secrecy surrounding Chrysalis had been swept away like warm morning sunshine burning off a deep fog.
An exhausted Claire appeared in the doorway just then, a weary smile gracing her features as her gaze fell on the three men in the room.
"Keep," Darien jumped to his feet, rushed forward a couple steps, then froze as if unsure this was how he should be reacting to the situation.
"How's the Chief?" Hobbes asked, snapping the cell phone shut and shoving it back into the pocket of his sport coat.
Claire stepped fully into the room, her hands stuffed in the pockets of the borrowed labcoat, and sighed deeply. "I've only been allowed to see him for a moment as I'm not his primary physician..."
"Spit it out, Keep, it was a heart attack, right?" Hobbes shook his head in dismay. "We didn't call him the 'Fat Man' for nothing."
"Robert," Eberts admonished, wanting to be more forceful, but unable to as the Official had done little in the past few years to watch his weight.
"The Official suffered a major ischemic stroke caused by a cerebral thrombosis," Claire answered.
"Carotid or basilar?" Darien asked, which caused Claire's eyes to widen in surprise.
"Fawkes, you speaking in tongues or something?" Hobbes questioned, sounding as confused as Claire looked.
"Nah, those are the two most common types of ischemic strokes is all," Darien glanced about at everyone and figured out quickly that everyone was having trouble with the medicalese coming from him. "Aunt C had a minor stroke a few years back, remember? I picked up the info then."
"Oh yes, I'd forgotten. My apologies, Darien." Claire ran a hand through her hair and sank into the nearest seat she could find. "It was a carotid thrombosis and though he arrived within the three hour window, they determined he was not a candidate for tPA, a drug commonly used to break up clots." She turned to Eberts. "Albert, has the Official mentioned feeling ill recently? Dizziness, nausea, blurred vision, difficulty speaking, anything like that?"
Eberts thought about it for several minutes before answering. "The only incident I can think of was nearly two weeks ago when he felt a bit unwell one morning. I'm afraid he logged it off to a hasty breakfast, and since he recovered within an hour neither of us were overly concerned." Worry crossed his features at the thought that he might have missed something of importance, something that might have prevented this from striking down the Official at this particular time. "Doctor?"
"Based on the initial scans it appears he suffered several TIAs," at their blank looks she added, "Mini-strokes. They cause symptoms, but clear up quickly once the clot breaks free. They built up to what appears to be a massive one."
"Damn," Hobbes muttered. "How long we looking at Keep? Weeks? Months?"
"Bobby, he just came out of surgery to remove the blockage. Once he's conscious and more tests have been run we'll have a better idea," Claire told them, sounding distraught. "I doubt he will ever return to work."
Eberts watched as Hobbes actually sagged in place, honest shock on his features, and for the moment looking his age. "Doctor, what kind of permanent damage are we looking at?" Eberts inquired.
Darien raised one shaky hand to run through his hair, his head tipped down as if fascinated with the ugly brown rug that lay underfoot and answered in a soft voice. "Speech and memory centers are the most affected. Paralysis to the right side of the body, at the very least. Severe cases suffer total paralysis and complete aphasia." Darien shrugged. "Aunt C was lucky, she has some vision and balance problems, but recovered pretty well all things considered."
"You're scaring me, my friend." Hobbes paced forward, his hand twitching for his phone, plainly feeling the need to do something. "Care to translate, Claire?"
"Aphasia is the inability to understand spoken language. You may say the word 'book' but someone who has aphasia will hear something totally different. They might know what a book is, but they can no longer make the connection between the word and the physical object." Claire shifted back into the seat, one hand coming up to rub her forehead.
"Is there anything we can do?" Eberts asked, feeling the loss of having someone to tell him what needed to be done.
"Not really. It'll be a few days before we know how severe the damage is and what form it has taken. He's alive. That's pretty much all we know right now." Claire got to her feet, making it obvious she was going to be staying here at Fort Leavitt with the Official until they had some real answers. "Bobby..."
"Yeah, I'll get your bag and drop it off. Anything special you want in it?" Hobbes asked as he went to her and set one hand on her shoulder.
She took a moment to sag back against him for comfort before she replied, "My slippers, the blue ones."
"All right," Hobbes gave her a quick hug and released her. "I want regular updates and I'll make arrangements for security teams 24/7."
"Is that necessary?" Darien suddenly perked up, now that there was work, of a sort, to be done.
"I ain't taking no chances," Hobbes stated, and his partner nodded after taking a few seconds to think over the whole thing. "Alex volunteered to handle security for our... guests, so we know they ain't going nowhere without some serious firepower being used to retrieve them." Hobbes turned to Eberts. "Looks like you're the boss for now."
"Me?" Eberts squeaked, a sudden terror rushing through his veins, and, for an instant, he wished he had one of those new Quicksilver glands in his head so he could conveniently fade into the background.
"Yeah, you. You know how the Agency is run better than the Fat Man himself. What, you think I should do it?" Hobbes asked sarcastically and Darien, who had paced his way behind his diminutive friend, violently shook his head and waved his hands in a firm negative, which caused Eberts to chuckle. Hobbes whipped his head about just in time to see Darien stretching his arms over his head and looking completely innocent. "Fawkes..."
"What?" Darien queried, with a smirk.
"You mook," Hobbes grumbled and shoved him gently away. "We'll get outta your hair, Keep."
"Let 'im know we're pulling for him, 'kay?" Darien requested in an almost shy tone.
"I will, Darien," Claire assured him, patting him on the shoulder, then left the room, presumably to make her way back into the depths of the hospital and the Official.
"What now, Bobby? I may not like Charlie all that much, but I don't trust anyone else with..." he waved vaguely about for a second. "I've had that experience and would rather not deal with it again, y'know?"
"I know, Fawkes, but it's not like we get any say in the matter." Hobbes rubbed a hand across the top of his head. "The timing sucks, though."
"Agreed," Eberts said with a nod. "I do believe we should return to the office. The Official set quite a few things in motion and at the very least, I need to be there to field the calls."
"Sure, Ebes, just let us know what we can do to help." Darien clapped a companionable hand on his shoulder.
"Volunteering, Fawkes? Haven't you learned anything I've tried to pound into that thick skull of yours?" Hobbes groused good-naturedly.
"Yep, I learned to volunteer both of us so's I can pawn most of the work off on you." Darien dodged the mock swing of a fist and slipped out the door.
Hobbes turned to Eberts. "He'll make it, Eberts. Hell, he'll outlive us all."
One week later....
Euripides in his book 'Aegeus' said,
Which, of course, is all Greek to me. Rough translation... "A bad beginning makes a bad ending."
Given the way this "relationship" began, the ending was going to be nothing less than spectacular.
Carter Lincoln stood solemnly at the end of the hallway waiting for the few remaining personnel to finish jostling for position. It was crowded, but it was also just about the only place to gather all members of the Agency in one place. All the minor departments were represented, from lab techs, to accountants, to data retrieval specialists along with all the field agents that were currently on duty; all 20 of them. But they were not who Carter watched. No, it was the group of four off to one side, plainly making up their own little group within the whole that he eyed with caution. It was these four he would have to bring to heel quickly if this coup of his was to go off without a hitch.
Beside him Norbert P. Barrington V, the newly appointed Official of the Agency, adjusted his tie yet again, as if how he looked mattered at all to anyone there. Carter had been grooming the man for years in the hopes an opportunity like this would come up, though, in truth, never in even his wildest dreams had he thought the prize would be the Agency. Especially now when Borden had put his backwater group of spies in the limelight and had been practically granted the power to call all the shots in a war against the most insidious of threats ... supermen in the guise of normal people. Hitler's dream brought to reality through genetic manipulation and careful inbreeding. And their goal was no less frightening than that of the former leader of Germany, domination and possibly even genocide of all those who were not of their perfect race.
Carter knew with a certainty that bordered on fanaticism that this was his destiny; to take control of the Agency and defeat this... Chrysalis. He had made all the right phone calls, played on all the right fears, pulled all the right strings to have the Agency put back under the control of the Department of Justice, its originator back in the days of the Cold War, and specifically under the direct control of the CIA. Under his direct control.
Norbert cleared his throat noisily, and the attention of the majority gathered swung to him. Carter stepped forward and took over then. "Gentlemen, ladies, as you know Charles Borden has fallen ill and is unable to fulfill his duties. Until his condition has been fully assessed and it has been determined whether or not he will return to duty, Agent Barrington," Carter waved vaguely at the man standing next to him, "will take over the position as Official of this Agency."
Carter noted that while the majority of those assembled didn't even blink, the foursome tossed worried looks at each other but did not yet comment aloud. "There are a few other changes that will take place due to the revelations presented just last week in DC. The Agency will no longer be buried in obscurity under the DOI and Fish and Game," he stated, doing his best to cover his obscene joy at the situation.
"So where will we be?" Darien asked, a dark look aimed at Carter, who ignored both the look and the question. He would deal with Mr. Fawkes shortly.
"The Senate Intelligence Committee has approved an immediate budget increase and moved you back under the control of the DOJ. As the recently appointed Director of Central Intelligence, I've decided the best place for this Agency will be under the CIA and NSA." Carter was disappointed when this didn't seem to impress anyone who stood before him. Not even Charlie's supposed right-hand man, Eberts, who had miraculously managed to blackmail the ASS during his tenure. Getting blood from a stone would normally be easier, which just proved the man had a talent that should be cultivated. "You won't be as autonomous as in the past, but you will have access to all the latest toys and technology available today." He focused on the woman of the foursome, who was wearing a non-regulation blue lab coat and looking at him with pursed lips. Perhaps it was time to toss out a little enticement. Positive reinforcement could be effective with that one. "A considerable portion of the budget will be set aside for R&D, which should allow your current lines of research to be expanded dramatically."
Claire's eyes narrowed slightly. "And what current lines of research would those be?" she asked, suspicion heavy in her voice.
"Keep," the man beside her, who Carter guessed was Agent Hobbes, hissed.
"I think perhaps we should discuss the details in private," Carter suggested with a tilt to his head. "Mr. ... Eberts is it?" he asked, and the man nodded slightly. "If you would assist the Official for a few minutes, we," He pointedly looked at the other three, "can continue this in the office. Norbert..."
The new Official stepped forward and surveyed the group of agents as Eberts joined him. It was obvious that several were chewing the inside of their lips in reaction to Barrington's first name, and, for an instant, Carter regretted his use of it. He quickly shook off the brush of remorse; it wasn't like it mattered if those employed here respected Norbert, as his only purpose was to sign papers and issue the orders that Carter deemed necessary - the puppet king of a suddenly very powerful country.
Carter refocused on the trio and strode boldly towards them. "Shall we?" He walked right past them and to the office door just down the hall, the throne room of this domain, and didn't bother hiding the smile of triumph when all three followed without a complaint. Though the snickering from Fawkes was certain to become irritating very quickly.
As Carter swung open the glass inset door for room 202 he heard Fawkes' chuckle; "Norbert. Wonder if his mama still dresses him."
Lincoln settled into the padded leather desk chair, feeling the sag of springs that bore mute testimony to long possession by Charles Borden. He made a mental note to have it replaced. Barrington would need a fresh look, if only to serve as a subtle reminder to everyone employed here that the staff of office had been passed on.
He casually waved the threesome into the chairs that faced the desk and leaned back, eyeing each of them in turn, focusing finally on Darien Fawkes, non-regulation haircut drooping into his eyes and giving him the look of a truculent teenager. "Mr. Fawkes. I've been looking forward to meeting you," he informed the younger man, lacing his fingers and resting his elbows on the desktop. "Your reputation precedes you."
"Yeah, with your ego, it's like travelin' in a parade," Hobbes spoke up, poking an elbow into Fawkes' ribs teasingly.
Fawkes grunted, shooting a glare at his partner. "My ego? What about you, super spy?" he jibed back.
It was clear to Lincoln that discipline had fallen by the wayside between these two, devolving into some sort of run-on babble that served only to obscure the smooth flow of communication. "I congratulate you on your perspicacity in the Alison Jennings affair a few years ago," he spoke up, and had the pleasure of watching the color leach from Fawkes' tanned face. Hobbes blanched as well, and Carter smiled slightly in satisfaction. "It takes rather a lot to manage an end-run around me," he complimented, making sure that the underlying menace was unmistakable.
"Uh, yeah... About that," Darien began, and Lincoln cut him off with a wave of the hand.
"No apologies are necessary, Mr. Fawkes," he assured the man he'd spent the last few years researching. "Indeed, it's because of that first encounter I'm here today. I must say, when you come up on someone's radar, you do it in a big way... for an invisible man," he added. "No wonder you've become the bane of Chrysalis' existence."
He watched that register with Fawkes, impressed when the man remained silent, eyes narrowing warily. For all the laxity Borden had tolerated when it came to his hottest pair of agents, it was clear neither Fawkes nor Hobbes could be considered stupid. He'd shown a few of the carrots he intended to offer the Agency drones. Now it was time to show the problem children the stick. "I think it's time I make you aware of just how the changes here at the Agency will affect you three," he smiled pleasantly and began.
Darien shifted in his seat restlessly, anxiety beginning to creep through his muscles with every heartbeat. Lincoln's calm assumption of control was making him profoundly nervous. It was patently obvious Official Barrington's reign was going to be a puppet regime at best. The list of changes the DCI would be insisting on seemingly included everything from dress codes and the color of lab coats to be worn by Claire and her techies all the way to assigned parking. He could only imagine what sort of shake-ups would be happening in the day-to-day operations of the Agency. He turned back into the conversation as Hobbes' worried tone penetrated his preoccupation.
"Whaddaya mean, you're puttin' your own guys into the QS-9500 program?" Bobby asked indignantly. "Claire's already pre-screened the next batch'a Agency guys. They're in training right now! She's ready to go as soon as the Official makes his pick of the litter."
Darien glanced at Claire where she sat slightly behind them, startled to see her sitting there, mouth agape in sheer indignation.
"I think you'll agree that the scope of the I-Man project will have to change in light of the recent revelations about the extent of the Chrysalis threat," Lincoln asserted. "While I'm sure the volunteers the good doctor has selected are admirable agents, it's clear to me that what we need at the moment is a rethinking of the use we plan to make of the invisibility factor."
"Rethinking?" Claire spoke up, voice squeaking with outrage. "What you're proposing is a complete bastardization of the research!"
Darien was left with the awful feeling he'd missed something vital, and he turned to look at his partner. Hobbes was totally focused on Lincoln and therefore no help at all. Fawkes straightened in his chair, attention fixed on the frightening energy that surged around the room.
"Oh, come now, Doctor," Lincoln replied condescendingly. "This has been the intent of the I-Man project from the beginning. Why else would the first volunteer have been selected from among the CIA's finest? Simon Cole was one of the more skilled assassins we've had working for us," he reminded Claire, and Darien felt his stomach knot up as he realized what he'd missed.
"Waitaminute! You're telling me that you're hijacking the I-Man project and turning it into your own private army of assassins?" Darien interrupted, horrified.
"Far from it," Lincoln replied evenly. "Private armies don't interest me, Mr. Fawkes. I'm a public official with the best interests of this country at heart. And you can't be so naïve as to believe that an organization like Chrysalis would shrink at the use of strategic assassination. We need to be able to counter that threat."
Darien stared at the man open-mouthed. "If that's what this place is gonna turn into, then I quit," he announced coldly.
"I hardly think that's an option," Lincoln smiled. "I've spent a fair amount of time researching your past, both with this Agency and before. One of the advantages of being DCI is that clearance ceases to be an issue. So I've seen pretty much everything there is to see on the life and times of Darien Fawkes. Luke Lawson's files were especially enlightening," he added.
"Mr. Fawkes... Darien. Your skills when it comes to the use of Quicksilver are unique. No one, not one of the many agents who've used Charlie's backpack technology, have developed the level of conscious control you've mastered. Your expertise will be crucial in the training of the next group of gland-equipped agents," Lincoln went on with cheerful bonhomie.
Darien simply stared at the Director of Central Intelligence, speechless.
"Doctor." Lincoln turned back to Claire, the pleasant demeanor evaporating as the gloves came off. "You will retrofit Agent Fawkes' gland with the chemical control factor you engineered for the new gland series. Immediately. There will be no further question of unauthorized or unsupervised invisibility. From any of the Agents bearing a gland."
"Now just a second," Darien interrupted indignantly. "You're telling me if I don't play ball, you'll castrate the gland in my head?" he asked indignantly, fury beginning a comforting glow in the pit of his stomach.
"On the contrary, Mr. Fawkes. I'm telling you that whether you 'play ball' or not, as you put it, you will no longer be excluded from the constraints placed on any other Agent of this Agency. As the first of your kind, surely you can see how essential consistency is in the maintenance of morale." Lincoln returned his attention to Claire, who had gone pale and silent at the orders being issued so unilaterally. Darien stared at her as well, begging silently for her support.
"Darien has earned the right to be control-free, Director Lincoln," Claire began with an admirable attempt at firmness. "I see no reason to implant the chemical dependency into his gland."
Carter eyed her disapprovingly. "The invisibility factor must be under our control, Doctor. That is not open to debate. To protect that technology, the control mechanism must be in place in all implanted glands, and even in the 'secretion' glands we still have. Without that control, what's to stop an unfriendly power from capturing one of our agents and using them against us?" He glanced from one to the other of them, and Darien glared back, understanding the argument, but also knowing it was spurious at best, with Arnaud's new glands still on the loose, not to mention whatever research of De Föhn Chrysalis might still have in their files somewhere.
"So let me walk. I'll retire to some nice little hole in the wall and take up tomato farming or something," Darien spoke up stubbornly. "You sure as hell don't need me, not with the next generation of 'borgs' you're plannin' on hatching," he accused.
"Retire? Mr. Fawkes, as long as the gland is in your head, the only hope of retirement you have would be incarceration in the 'Community.' Leaving you loose in the world without supervision or restraints placed on your questionable morals is a risk I'm not willing to take," Lincoln replied impatiently, clearly wondering at Darien's willful density as he returned his attention to Claire.
"Oh, and Doctor," Carter went on informatively, as if he was filling them in on some interesting item of gossip, "if Agent Fawkes attempts to 'leave' the Agency, the cure for the madness you administered in 2002 will be reversed. The genetic information is still on file, and it would be relatively easy to use the same viral vector to reintroduce the Quicksilver Madness into the gland's structure."
Darien gulped, the room suddenly not containing enough oxygen to fill his lungs. He felt as if he'd been hit over the head with something, his hearing gone dim. The only thing he could think about was what a return of Madness signaled in his life. Everything he'd grown to love, all the skills he'd acquired, the friends he'd made, the life he'd created for himself, gone. They would be wiped out of existence as though they'd never been. "No," he whispered soundlessly, shocked at the unrepentant ruthlessness he'd just been shown.
"Absolutely not," Claire snapped, anger replacing the stunned disbelief on her face. "Nothing on earth would make me do that to Darien," she informed the DCI unflinchingly.
Lincoln smiled coldly. "I didn't say anything about asking you to, Doctor. Fortunately for the QS-9500 project, Charlie Borden and his assistant have been quite conscientious about backing up your research data. I would never dream of asking you to violate your personal convictions. Happily, you are by no means the only brilliant scientist working for the US government. There is a list of people eagerly awaiting the opportunity to work on the infamous I-Man Project. And all with far less loyalty to Mr. Fawkes. Rest assured, I will get what I want. One way or another, with or without your cooperation."
Once again, Lincoln turned to face Darien. "Mr. Fawkes, let me make this perfectly clear. The gland you carry is the property of this government. As long as it is housed in your skull, you will be considered our property and under our protection."
"Protection?" Darien sputtered in disbelief. "You're sitting here telling me that if I rabbit, you'll come after me and take the gland outta my head, even if it kills me. I can't even quit or you'll make sure if I do, I do it in a straight jacket in a padded room somewhere while I watch my eyes go permanently silver in the two-way mirror. My only out is to let you stick me into that 'Truman Show' clone with Bobby's ex-partner who tried to kill me?" Darien reiterated his choices bitterly. "You have a weird idea of protecting something,"
"Darien." Lincoln's voice warmed, reassurance radiating from his posture as he relaxed back in the chair, his smile returning, this time accented with wry paternalism. "It needn't come to that. I am simply trying to make it clear to you that your help will be essential in the next phase of the QS-9500 program. Essential enough that your right of refusal has been waived. Besides... As the son of Forester Purdue, I suspect you may have more talent than you give yourself credit for, when it comes to certain elements of the new I-Man agenda."
Darien felt his mouth drop open in surprise, and Lincoln chuckled at the expression on his face.
"I did tell you I'd read your files, Darien. All of them." With that, Carter straightened, hands dropping to the desk to rest palms down on the scarred wood. "I think we understand each other now, yes?" he inquired as he looked from one to the other of them for confirmation, smiling pleasantly.
"Oh, yeah, we understand," Darien answered under his breath as he got to his feet, claustrophobia urging him to flee the office. It took every ounce of willpower to force himself to wait until Hobbes and Claire had risen, and together, the three of them exited the office. Darien could feel Lincoln's gaze between his shoulders like a sword's point, even through the glass as he closed the door after them all.
"Are you enjoying this?" Eleanor asked of the woman standing on the far side of the room, her arms crossed over her chest and look dangerously cool.
"Enjoy? Not really. Do I find it ironic as hell? You better believe it," Alex responded, her voice hard. "You people spend all this time trying to create your utopian vision of human perfection only to discover you are just as mortal as the rest of us." She shook her head in mock dismay. "Not that you'll learn a damn thing from this."
"'...remember the past are condemned to repeat it'," Darien was saying as the door to the observation lounge was swung open. The words an eerie reflection of those Alex had spoken mere seconds before. "I won't go back to that, Claire. He can't do this... can he?"
Eleanor was shocked at the plaintive and fearful tone in Darien's voice and could only wonder what had transpired to cause it. Knowing she was unwelcome and not trusted, she did her best to fade into the background, switching her focus away from the Agency people in the room and back to her husband on the far side of the glass. He lay on the bed staring sightlessly at the room about him, his last lucid period having ended about 30 minutes before. Symptoms seemed to come in cycles; fever and weakness followed by increasing inability to focus on the now; his mind wandering off to other times and other places. It frightened her.
"Obviously he can," Claire snapped, but it was clear even to Eleanor that it was not Darien his doctor was angry at.
"Keep, you wouldn't do that. Would you?" Hobbes asked in disbelief.
Claire sighed deeply. "Bobby, I don't think I'll have a choice," she admitted, only able to meet the eyes of the two men for a second before looking away. "If I stay, I'll be forced to follow that megalomaniac's dictates, or risk being fired - or worse. If I leave... There won't be anyone to protect Darien even a little from that man."
"What's going on?" Alex approached the trio, her voice echoing the concern radiating off the others.
"New boss has given Fawkes here an ultimatum. Submit to the gland control programming or be retired... permanently," Hobbes answered as he turned to face the former Agency employee.
"Oh, that's not good," Alex grumbled. "Darien, if I can help in any way, just let me know." She went to him, one hand resting on his forearm, which he proceeded to cover with one of his own.
"Thanks, Alex, here's hoping I don't have to take you up on that," Darien stated softly.
Eleanor watched all this reflected in the window she faced with the dawning realization that these people actually cared about one another, that there was little they wouldn't do for each other and to hell with the 'greater good.' It was at odds with life within Chrysalis where loyalty was to the overall goals and ideals of the group first and to those you worked for next. Family, in that outdated conventional use of the word, was nearly nonexistent. Pairings such as she and Jared had were becoming more and more rare, longevity being a major factor as monogamy for people whose lives might very well extend into the hundreds of years made little logical sense. The breeding program that had not yet hit peak production was another reason. The "parents" chosen for each child might never know they existed or how many may have been created.
She was beginning to understand this after having raised Brandon essentially alone all these years. When they had successfully pulled off the rescue of Brandon from his birth mother, the two of them had gone into hiding in Sector E where Jared had made a few alliances over the years. That had lasted about two years until Alex had tracked them down the first time. They had then moved to a series of prearranged locations in various countries and sectors over the course of the next several years. Eleanor had later learned that personal files had been stolen from Jared's apartment in San Diego that had included the safe house locations, which is why Alex had come near to retrieving the boy on not one, but four separate occasions. The last narrow escape had been mere minutes before Monroe's arrival, and led to new arrangements for their protection. They had thought they were safe until members of their household, several of whom were of Stark's own lineage fell ill. Illnesses that should not have been possible for their genetically enhanced systems. It wasn't until the discovery of the new nanobots that Jared knew it was sabotage, and that it had to be from someone inside Chrysalis. Linking it to Tabitha had been a simple matter. Finding a cure had turned out to be impossible.
Eleanor looked at her husband, who was no longer lying still but talking to unseen people he believed were in the room with him. While the discussion about the change in status for the Agency was interesting, she had other things to worry about. "Excuse me," she spoke up, not allowing the hesitation she felt to be heard in her voice.
It was Claire who responded, "Yes?"
"Brandon would like to see his father," Eleanor stated, even as Alex snorted in derision.
Claire shook her head. "It's too risky."
"Risky?" Eleanor couldn't contain the belligerence she felt. Keeping Brandon from Jared would not suddenly make the boy turn to Alex. "I can understand you wanting to punish Jared, but I didn't think you would do the same to a child."
Alex took two steps towards Eleanor, her hands balled into fists at her side. "Punish? You call this punishment? Let me tell you..."
Darien surged forward and set a hand on Alex's shoulder. "Don't, Alex, she - they - aren't worth it."
"But it would feel so damn good," Alex hissed, still aiming a deadly glare at the woman.
"Maybe, but it would mean lowering yourself to their level, and we know you're better than that," Darien countered, and Eleanor was surprised when the words had an impact.
"Yeah, Monroe, for all their claims of genetic superiority they sure as hell act like nothing more than spoiled children," Hobbes added with a sneer, plainly enjoying the chance to express his opinion on the matter.
Alex just turned away, Darien trailing along, one hand still resting gently on her shoulder, though whether for comfort or to protect Eleanor from her was unclear. "Please explain," she requested of Claire, not about to respond to the commentary and inflame their dislike even more. There were far more important things at stake, such as the lives of her husband and son.
"I don't yet know the specifics of how the nanobots are triggered," Claire stated, her hands clasping together in front of her body. "It's possible that proximity to someone in whom they have been activated is all that is necessary."
Eleanor frowned, knowing that she had no idea either. "Wasn't that information in the data Jared provided?"
"Nope," Hobbes assured her. "Though the rest of the info was quite useful."
"Damn it. I just assumed it was there. Jared must not have recorded the information for fear of it being discovered." Eleanor wanted to pace, but the number of people in the room and the looks aimed at her kept her in place.
"What do you know?" Claire demanded. "What haven't you told me?"
"I... I don't know much. You are correct that it requires a trigger to become active, but it's not a simple RF signal like those primitive spy-nanos that you've studied. The programming is much more detailed, much more specific," Eleanor told those blank faces before her. "Based on what I've seen, the severity of the infection can be controlled. Some died within hours and others lasted weeks before succumbing."
"How?" Hobbes barked.
"I don't know," Eleanor practically shouted. "You'll need access to the programming." She noticed, but without realizing the import of it, when Jared went still as if paying rapt attention to some unseen visitor.
Claire was nodding absently, her mind already working on the problem. "I only have half the equation."
"Half of what equation?" the new Official asked as he swung the door fully open and stepped into the room.
The silence that suddenly filled the room was impressive, and Eleanor could only wonder who this new player to the game was. She did recognize the man who followed, squeezing into the increasingly crowded observation room.
"The... Official... was curious about our guests," Eberts explained
"What are the chances that he has the right genetics to be infected?" Darien mused aloud.
"Darien," Claire admonished, trying to sound appropriately upset with her charge and failing to Eleanor's ears.
Barrington seemed to ignore this insubordination and moved to the window. Reaching out he played with the switches. "Mr. Stark. Can you hear me?" he asked flatly. There was no movement on Jared's part to indicate he had, and the new Official stepped away, inadvertently leaving the mic turned on, which Eleanor knew would allow Jared to hear everything being said in the room. "Doctor?"
"I have filled in... the Official... on the situation as it stands," Eberts told Claire, who frowned slightly before turning to the man who was supposedly their boss.
"I need access to the programming for the nanos' trigger in order to cure the..."
"If you have this... trigger, would you be able to rewrite the programming?" The Official didn't even turn to look at her, but continued to watch Jared.
"In theory," Claire responded in an unsure tone due to the seeming change in topic.
"Good. How would we go about obtaining this trigger?" he asked.
Eleanor realized with growing dismay that this new Official was her worst fear, that he would only help in order to gain access to this new and dangerous nanotechnology. Most likely to use it against Chrysalis, which would be a total defeat of their purpose in coming here. Claire and the others were just employees; if their boss said 'jump' they had little choice but to do it and the end result would be the death of her son. Eleanor's eyes roved about the room and settled on Alex. Alex, who was not employed by the Agency and hadn't been for years. Alex, who though completely unsure of her ability, had been a good enough mother instinctively to do what was best for her child regardless of her own wants and needs. And all for a child she had barely known. Eleanor was beginning to realize that Chrysalis or no, she wanted her son to live and that the only way to accomplish that might very well be to give him up.
Eleanor's head snapped about in shock when the shaky voice of her husband was suddenly heard across the speakers.
"I may be able to provide that information.... for a price."
"Jared?" Eleanor gasped, going to the microphone and practically shouting into it, which caused Jared to flinch on the bed.
He sat up a bit more and looked around, noting the room still hadn't changed a whole lot since the last time he'd managed a grasp on reality. It was clear from his still weakened condition that the Agency's vaunted Keeper was not yet able to cure this advanced version of the nanobots. It had been a hope, albeit a faint one, and he no longer saw any point in protecting the organization he'd been a part of for many decades.
He forced the most superior sneer on his face as he could manage and glared at those he could see gathered on the far side of the glass. For an instant he had some small inkling of how Fawkes must have felt as a lab rat trapped in an elaborate maze, then mentally shook his head. Fawkes was nothing but a poor attempt at duplicating what Chrysalis had already achieved - improvement of the species through purposeful design. That it was sadly flawed was not Fawkes' fault but that of his creators.
Apparently, his musings had taken too long and the feminine voice of the Keeper suddenly filled the room. "What price?"
"Protection for my son and the guarantee that when you have the needed information that you will cure me," Jared explained simply. To hell with the rest of his line. Sharon had already made her position on the subject perfectly clear. He knew his best chance to get even was to keep himself and his son alive. Even if the cure failed to reverse the damage that had occurred to himself, Brandon was, as yet, untouched. Brandon could take revenge, rid Chrysalis of its current egocentric scions and restore control to the founding lines... as it should be.
There was silence for a few seconds followed by a burst of poorly muffled conversation, as if a hand had been placed over the microphone. A vitriolic 'let him rot in hell' was heard from the ever lovely and creative Alex Monroe, who had done her best to make his and his family's life hell ever since she had learned the truth about the child she had carried for Chrysalis. Even with all the trouble it had caused, he was still convinced she had been the best possible incubator for Brandon.
"All right, you got a deal," sounded in the room by the ever gruff and straight to the point Agent Hobbes. "But we gotta have all the info."
Jared opened his mouth to speak, but no sound came out as a wave of disorientation hit him and caused him to sway on the bed, he would have to rely on his wife to give them the details. "Eleanor...,"
"Yes, Jared?" The concern in her voice was almost touching.
"The information they need is on the disks. Use your personal code. Tell them..." Jared paused, knowing that what the Agency was about to learn was going to tip their world on its axis, but was necessary for them to understand exactly how far Sector G had furthered the goals of Chrysalis while under Tabitha's leadership. He would, of course, conveniently leave out the fact that had he not been pulled from active involvement from the breeding program it would have been completed years ahead of schedule instead of just recently being put to use in the field. "Tell them about Progeny." His hold on the present slipped with the word, his world shifting fluidly through realities, and he looked about the ward, seeing not the sterile hospital-like room before him, but a bedroom.
"Progeny?" Claire asked. "What is that?"
It was Eberts who answered first. "We've come across that name, but could find out very little. We assumed it was just another phase in the Chrysalis breeding program."
Eleanor laughed, the sound harsh and bitter. She was still fighting the disbelief that Jared wanted her to reveal one of the most important projects of Chrysalis to these people. Part of her was still loyal to the ideal; she had caught Jared's failure to make her safety part of his price, and she was surprised at how that hurt. "Oh, it's a breeding program all right, but not for us. It's for you."
"Explain," the Official ordered with an astonishing amount of command in his voice.
"Even using you as incubators, you still outbreed us 10-1, so it was determined the problem needed to be rectified," Eleanor backed herself into the corner, the eyes of all those that had fallen upon her actually scaring her for the first time.
"How?" Alex asked in a voice gone soft in pure rage that could easily be seen in her eyes.
Eleanor knew that if it wasn't for the others present, especially Darien, who still had a hand planted firmly on Alex's shoulder, the woman would have her hands wrapped firmly about Eleanor's throat. One of her hands slipped upwards in an unconscious act of self-preservation. "Nanos. The programming is deceptively simple; the logistics of distribution was the main issue."
"Why you bitch," Alex snarled and surged forward only to be held in place by Darien. Even Hobbes turned about in case his assistance was required. "How many? How many lives have you ruined?"
Eleanor shook her head. "None. Though unable to conceive, your kind can still carry to term..." At the dark look tossed her way by the Keeper, Eleanor knew she had made an error.
"Creating even more incubators for your breeding program," Claire stated, having swiftly worked out the true purpose. "When does this project go into effect?"
"Three years ago," Eleanor answered, her back straightening in preparation to defend herself.
"Oh crap," Darien muttered.
"No, partner, this is way beyond 'crap'," Hobbes disagreed.
"This makes no sense. If there had been a world-wide reduction in births annually it would have been noticed," Claire said as she turned away from Eleanor to face the others in the room.
"That's because it's not worldwide... not yet." Eleanor was not sure if she should have drawn the attention back to herself. "Look, I only know what I've heard. Because ... because of the situation with Brandon, I've been out of direct contact with this sector for several years, so I only know the basics."
"Well, spill 'em," Alex ordered, sounding amazingly like Hobbes for an instant.
Eleanor knew she had little choice at this point, as Claire would certainly be more than willing to pull out her magic truth serum and ask questions until every last bit of information on the subject had been torn from her. "They targeted third-world countries in the first phase, those whose populations would be of the least concern to us. Africa, Asia, South America, and some of the less developed European countries. We also targeted one or two European countries who'd already displayed a decreasing fertility trend. Using first-world populations as incubators and surrogates is our ultimate aim, even if the sterility program is aimed at the worldwide population of normals."
Claire shook her head in disbelief. "How? Water supplies? Food? How are you getting the nanos to the... your victims?"
Eleanor smiled. "You do most of the work for us with your charitable organizations: your determination to inoculate every man, woman, and child of those wretched places against even the most common of illnesses. You need vast quantities of vaccines to do so; it was simply a matter of producing them for you, which we've been doing for decades, and, once we were ready, adding the sterility nanos to them." She smiled at the dumbfounded looks on their faces. "And you so pride yourself on your good deeds."
Darien growled, his teeth audibly grinding together. "She's all yours, Alex." He released her and waved at Eleanor.
"Stop," the Official ordered. "You don't work here any longer, and it's only due to the unique situation that I've allowed you to remain. Do not push your luck." For an instant it looked as if Alex and possibly Darien were going to take their anger out on this new player, but after a few seconds, they subsided and settled for talking quietly to each other whilst glowering sullenly at Eleanor. The Official strode forward with Eberts right behind him. "Where are they working on this Progeny Project?"
"That, I don't know." When that looked to inspire a reaction that boded ill for her health she added, "it might be on the disks."
"It wasn't," Eberts asserted, appearing completely confident that he had decrypted the disks correctly.
"Jared said to use my personal code. That means there's another layer of encrypted data on the disks," Eleanor explained. "I would guess it includes everything he knows about Progeny and the nanos he's infected with."
Eberts snapped his fingers. "So that's what that was." When everyone changed their focus to him he added; "There was what I thought were corrupted files on the disks. I'm afraid it didn't occur to me that he may have layered the data."
The Official apparently saw this as his moment to take control of the situation. "Eberts, take Mrs. Stark to a secure location and enlist her assistance in decoding the remaining data. I want to hold a debriefing by tomorrow morning, at the latest. Understood?"
"Yes, sir," Eberts acknowledged, then moved past those crowded into the room and escorted Eleanor from the ward.
"Not alone, you ain't," Hobbes insisted, following the pair to act as guard dog.
"Doctor, do what you can to keep Mr. Stark comfortable and make sure there is a recording device on at all times. What he talks about in his delirium could be of use," the Official said to Claire, sounding far more intelligent than their discussion with Carter had led them to believe.
"Yes, sir," Claire agreed without question, perhaps still stunned at the revelations of the last few minutes.
The Official then rounded on Darien and Alex. "I understand you have a relationship with... the child called Brandon Stark."
Alex nodded, as if unsure of her voice, or maybe her temper.
"Since you are not in my employ I can only ask for your assistance. In regards to Mr. Stark's request of safety for... the boy, would you be willing to investigate potentially secure locations for him to be moved to? Ones that Chrysalis would be unlikely to find easily?" the Official asked in an oddly concerned tone, as if he knew exactly how she would react to the request. "Agent Fawkes can assist for the time being if you feel he could be helpful."
That final carrot worked and Alex nodded. "I'll see what I can arrange. Darien?"
"Yeah, I'll help. I know a little bit about making people disappear after all," Darien commented, though with a decided lack of humor in his voice. Alex still managed a grin.
Seconds later they were gone, leaving the new Official of the Agency alone with might be the greatest prize any intelligence agency had ever scored. This was going to be a coup of legendary proportions.
"So what's it gonna be, huh, Alex?" Darien asked as he settled in front of the relatively new computer he and Hobbes shared. "Alaska? Hawaii?" there was a pause and he wagged his eyebrows mischievously. "Idaho?"
"Idaho?" she repeated skeptically. "What are you babbling about, Fawkes?"
"Well, I just figured that if you and the family are gonna be relocating, we might as well pick somewhere nice," Darien remarked as he logged on, fingers flitting over the keyboard.
"Idaho?" Alex repeated yet again, flummoxed at that particular choice.
"What's wrong with Idaho?" Darien complained, wounded.
"Oh don't pull that puppy dog look on me," she shook her head amusedly. "Nothing's wrong with Idaho, I suppose, if you have a thing for potatoes," she conceded. "What, all these years on a steady diet of French fries have you thinking with your stomach again?" She sobered slightly. "Besides, it's Brandon who'll be relocating, not me," she pointed out, stifling the old pain of loss.
"You never know, Alex, you never know. For a minute there, I thought for sure you were going to rip that woman's heart out and feed it to her," he answered. "A murder rap would probably have you thinking Idaho was looking mighty good," he added smugly.
"Oh, ha, Fawkes, very ha," she snarked, realizing how much she missed this particular camaraderie. Marriage - and her new life - was wonderful, but moments like this reminded her of the things she'd been sorry to leave behind. "Just open up the DoJ Witness Protection files, will you?" she suggested sarcastically. "I'm tempted to make it Alaska," she went on. "It's cold enough that Mrs. Stark should feel right at home."
"Ooooo, me-ow," was Darien's reply. "Why not Death Valley, then?" he teased.
"Not a bad idea," she grinned at him.
Alex eyed her lanky assistant while he managed a startlingly competent bit of hacking into the Department of Justice mainframe as smoothly as if he did this sort of thing every day. Only the briefest hint of uneasiness that the former thief had gained apparent mastery over at least basic electronic devices disturbed her enjoyment at his pleasure.
"Hah! Take that," Darien gloated as he turned the keyboard over to her with a flourish.
"Not bad, Fawkes," she complimented him, then couldn't resist the impulse to tease him a little. "Been taking private lessons from Eberts?"
He scowled at her, put out by the implied criticism of his abilities. "Hey, there, lady, I may be an old dog, but I still got a few tricks you don't know about," he retorted.
"Is that so?" she raised an eyebrow. "Such as?"
"Such as 'that's classified'," he grinned impishly.
She laughed quietly as she returned her attention to the computer.
"So... Uh... What did Mike say about all this?" Darien asked after a long moment, waving a hand vaguely through the air.
"You mean about Brandon?" Alex replied after a moment, smiling wistfully. "He was all set to start painting the spare bedroom," she answered, her affection clear.
"He's a good guy, huh?" Darien queried, as if seeking reassurance she was all right with the events of the past week.
"He's the best," she said simply, and began work.
The voice on the monitor droned on and on, monotonously reviewing the information that the Agency had supplied to the US government and that eventually ended up before the entire UN council. Chrysalis sympathizers had recorded the meeting, along with several others, meetings that had already been reviewed, each as damaging as the last to that protective shield of secrecy that their organization needed to survive. Those seated about the room were the ruling council of Chrysalis; each of the 13 members could directly trace their lineage back to one of the original founders.
Sharon stood before the screen, her hands opening and closing convulsively in her anger. The divisiveness in one sector was looking to bring down their entire organization in one fell swoop. "Enfer sanglant," she hissed between clenched teeth.
"Sharon," Senior Yu said, her accent adding a pleasant lilt to her words as she attempted to regain Sharon's attention. "We have no choice: we must go back into hiding and allow enough time to pass to fade from their memories."
"Agreed." Vladomirovich nodded. "In at most... three... generations, we can return to our timeline with a negligible delay."
"Progeny is set to continue for several years without direct supervision," Perez asserted. "The breeding and camp programs can go forward at a reduced capacity." He turned to O'Donnell. "Will the Library remain secure?"
"Aye, but we will need to risk consolidating many of the smaller branches in order to reduce our presence in some areas, the States especially," he answered with a heavy brogue layered upon his words. "We daren't lose any of the main facilities as we'd be unable to replace the volumes within 'em."
"Oui, I trust you will see to it?" Sharon asked of O'Donnell, who nodded. "Farsight will go on hold across the board. See to it data is wiped from the field locations and stored in the main Libraries in their respective countries. Duplicates, where possible, sent to all other storehouses." Sharon lifted a remote and clicked off the monitors, plunging the room into silence. "There is little chance they will find all of our secure databanks; at least one will survive."
"As will we," Mutumbo asserted as he looked over those assembled. "So we are agreed? Pandora will be initiated?"
Heads about the room one by one nodded in agreement, all eventually focusing on Sharon, as The Senior she had final veto on a decision as important as this.
"Oui, Pandora," Sharon finally agreed with a slight frown on her features. Jared had warned her the Agency and Darien Fawkes were dangerous to their organization, but there had been no way to predict this kind of impact. Just more proof of the necessity of secrecy needed to achieve their goals. Going to the nearby bar Sharon poured herself a glass of red wine and took a long draught before muttering, "Mais je n'ai jamais compris pourquioi nos fondatreurs avaient une telle fascination avec lat mythologies grecque."
Eberts finished downloading the second level of encrypted data from the Stark disks, the code Eleanor had given them opening the densely-packed matrix. But it was quarter to seven in the morning before he finished working on the information, peeling it away in onion-like layers and exposing the whole, complex multi-generational plan for the subjugation and elimination of Homo sapiens in favor of Homo rationalis, as Chrysalis had christened its self-created species.
He did his best to ignore the emotions those plans stirred in him, but in spite of his best efforts at self-control, he was trembling with shock and angry fear by the time he'd assembled hard copies of the information for the new Official's briefing.
Hobbes had finally shut up hours previously when he'd caught sight of the data over Eberts' shoulder and amazed disbelief had ended his rambling stream of invective aimed at Chrysalis in general and the Starks in particular. Now the seasoned agent hovered behind Albert, having cuffed Eleanor to the computer bench to prevent any unexpected moves on the woman's part, watching silently.
Eberts wondered if the quiver in his own hands was shared by Hobbes, doubting it. More likely, the agent would find some snide way to tease him as soon as he realized the depth of Albert's reaction. Bracing himself for that, he shut down his laptop and removed the disks from the drives. He'd burned over a dozen copies of each disk for distribution to their fellow intelligence agencies here and abroad; but the originals, the disks Eleanor had presented to them on her husband's say-so, would remain in the new secure evidence room Charles Borden had had installed a few years earlier to safeguard the new gland research. Master copies of a new master race's plans for world domination.
"I think we'd better take this to the Official, immediately," he said as he got up and retrieved the hard copies of the data from the printer, gathering them in shaking hands only to spill half of them in a paper cascade. Mentally, he dared Hobbes to comment. To his surprised relief, Hobbes simply stooped beside him and helped pick them up, handing them back without a word before unlocking the silent and exhausted-looking Eleanor and following Albert out into the hall.
"I'll go get Fawkes and the Keep," Bobby said, dragging his prisoner behind him as he peeled off for the stairwell.
Eberts didn't bother to voice the first thing that leapt to his tongue; that the Official would doubtless send for whomever he wished to include in the briefing without any help from Hobbes. Instinct told him that it would take one or two sharp raps across the knuckles before Hobbes and Fawkes in particular discovered what instinct had already told Albert: things had changed beyond recognition.
Barrington looked up from the sheaf of papers his assistant had handed him nearly an hour before, face stony as he glanced around the office at the small handful of people seated before him.
Darien stared back with equal grimness, then shot a look at his partner who was still paging through the last of the report. "So... Norbert," he spoke at last, making no effort to conceal his opinion of the man's name. "Why're we here? This is a 'need to know' kinda business, and usually, I'm not on the 'A' list."
"Agent Fawkes, it is clear you have gotten away with the sort of laxity I've seen since I've arrived for far too long. You will kindly address me as 'sir'."
Darien snorted softly. "Or what, you'll fire me? Go ahead. Make my day," he replied sarcastically, lingering fear that Carter Lincoln would do exactly as he'd threatened upon Barrington's installation not enough to put a damper on his anger. He ignored the warning kick Hobbes landed on his ankle, as well as the stifled gasp from Eberts.
Barrington raised an eyebrow in reaction to the open defiance, shaking his head slightly. "Carter warned me you'd waste time testing the new restrictions on your behavior, Mr. Fawkes. I'd rather hoped he was wrong. Still, if you insist on a pissing contest," he paused as he beckoned Eberts closer, turning to address the secretary. "Did the package arrive?" he asked, and Eberts nodded slightly, a troubled furrow between his brows that sparked a sudden and belated caution in Darien.
"What package?" he asked sharply.
Barrington ignored him, picking up the phone and dialing an internal extension. "Bring it in," he commanded.
Hanging up, he directed his attention not to Darien, but to Claire, who sat silently in her usual chair near the windows, the unfamiliar white lab coat and the new photo ID clipped to its pocket halfway to doing the job of making her another anonymous government drone. Darien felt his stomach begin to knot.
"Doctor, I took the liberty of having the gland control factor spliced into the viral vector you've been using in your various modifications of the gland's structure during the past few years. You will administer it to Agent Fawkes immediately."
Darien swallowed. Hard.
"Sir, I have no idea if the gene therapy will work," Claire prevaricated as she stole a fleeting glance at Darien.
The new Official snorted softly. "Doctor, that wasn't a request," he reminded her. "Until such time as I am sure Agent Fawkes understands the new nature of his role here at the Agency, he will cease to have use of the invisibility factor. It will cause no hardship in his day-to-day job performance, as I'm sure you know."
"But -" Claire started.
She was interrupted by the opening door and a young woman new to the Agency stepped in tentatively, bearing a small cooler emblazoned with the biohazard symbol, placing it on Barrington's desk before ducking back out again.
"Immediately, doctor." The command was unmistakable.
"Alright, alright," Darien acceded hastily, "I'll shut up," hearing the faint trace of fear in his voice.
"Yes, Agent Fawkes, I know you will," Barrington assured him sharply, then handed the cooler to Eberts. "Eberts," he commanded, and his assistant reluctantly but obediently took the little chest and walked it over to Claire, who took unwilling possession.
"Now, doctor," the Official spoke again, the edge in his voice growing.
"Very well, sir," Claire said and got up, clutching the ice chest as she turned her attention to Darien desperately. "Come with me, Darien," she ordered with an attempt at calm.
"Doctor, you misunderstand. I mean now. Here. There will be no possibility of further disobedience on your part," he commented, forestalling the retreat. "Official Borden was most put out by your subversion of his orders regarding the cure of the Quicksilver Madness. The reprimand is in your file."
Darien watched the color drain out of Claire's face. The look his Keeper turned on him spoke volumes and they stared at each other for a small eternity until Claire forced herself shakily across the small distance that separated them to set the cooler on the floor next to Darien's chair.
Claire," Hobbes prodded quietly. "Don't you need some'a your doctor stuff? You know, the tourniquet or something?"
Out of the corner of his eye, Darien was aware of his partner's distress, not only for him, but for the Keeper.
"Or maybe one'a them butterfly needles? Last time I gave him the thermal inhibitor, I hadda look around to find a clean vein..." Hobbes went on, the insistence in his voice telling Darien that Bobby had something specific on his mind.
Darien caught the faint frown on Claire's face, wondering what sort of hint Hobbes was trying get across as he watched her open the cooler, removing the contents and setting them carefully in the lid of the chest. A vial of translucent, faintly blue-green liquid nestled in a cold pack, a syringe, a rubber tourniquet, alcohol wipes and sterile cotton. Everything needed to administer the dose.
Darien felt frighteningly like a death row prisoner about to receive a lethal injection. "Claire," he managed unsteadily, "what if it's the Madness, not the new control?" he asked her softly, voicing the fear that pulsed in his blood, pounding through him with every heartbeat.
"That would hardly be in the Agency's best interest, Mr. Fawkes," Barrington asserted from behind his desk. "Like DCI Lincoln, I consider that measure to be a last resort. If you can't be brought into line any other way, we will revisit that option. But until then, I prefer to consider you a reasonable man. At least until I'm proven wrong," the Official said, the warning unmistakable.
As was the expression in Claire's face as she knelt beside him, drawing up the injection: 'Trust me.' The ferocity of the look, and years of friendship, tied him to his seat as if he'd been restrained. He felt Hobbes move behind his chair, both hands on his shoulders in silent support - or to hold him should he balk. Numbly, he endured having his shirtsleeve rolled up past his elbow, ignored the rubber hose being tied tightly around his biceps, ignored the cool touch of Claire's fingers as she probed for a vein.
"Man, them scars get worse all the time," Bobby remarked offhandedly, and again, Darien wondered what it was his smaller partner was trying to tell Claire. He stole a look over his shoulder at Hobbes. The subtle flick of Bobby's eyes towards Claire clearly meant something, but he hadn't a clue what.
"Well, you try spending over five years as a pincushion, and see how your veins look, pal," he snarked, resorting to the usual banter mode in desperation. The gleam in Bobby's eyes told him he'd gotten it right. He went on. "Try the other arm, Keepy," he suggested to Claire, who proceeded to do so.
Hobbes snickered. "Like that one'd be any better?" he commented sarcastically. "You're a junkie, Fawkes. Gotta move on to the leg veins pretty soon at this rate," he smirked. And Darien saw that register with Claire, her posture tensing then relaxing infinitesimally.
"I'm afraid he's right, Darien. With this gauge needle, I'm afraid I'll need to find an unscarred vein." Claire released the tourniquet a second time, then crouched before him, lifting his foot into her lap, shoving his pants leg up his shin and bunching his sock around the top of his desert boot. Again the tourniquet tightened around muscle, this time his calf, and once more, cool fingers traced his blood vessels as they bulged.
"Good thing you've been doin' them leg presses, Fawkes. Nice veins!" Hobbes enthused. Darien recognized the forced humor for what it was, but played along.
"Yeah, well, if I'd known that's what it took to impress you, I'd'a started wearing shorts on the job, Hobbesy," he replied acidly, feeling the Keeper turn his foot in her grasp, exposing a particularly plump specimen at the inside of his ankle as she shifted slightly. It was then that he realized she'd placed herself in the Official's line of sight, blocking clear vision of what she was doing.
"Darien, this is going to hurt a bit. The vein is very close to the bone here... Much more so than in your arms," she warned, and he felt the cold of an alcohol wipe against his skin, followed by the colder chill of the needle. But the familiar bite of the point failed to follow; instead, an unexpected wetness spread along the inside of his ankle, soaking his sock inside the boot. The realization made him flinch slightly.
"Ouch!" he complained. "You weren't kidding, Claire," he remarked unhappily as she released the tourniquet and stood, leaving him to tug down his pant cuff himself. "Can we find a different spot, next time? I think you nicked a nerve or something." He allowed himself to grouse, holding her gaze for a split second in gratitude.
"Yes, well, I did warn you," Claire reminded, capping the syringe. "I think you'd better come down to the lab so I can monitor the progress of the therapy," she suggested.
"Later, doctor. At the moment, we have more important things on our agenda. Eberts, have Mrs. Stark shown in again," Barrington ordered matter-of-factly, and a white-faced Eberts left the office to do as he'd been bidden.
It was the lack of satisfaction in the Official's voice that sent a tremor through Darien. This wasn't personal to his buddy, Norbert. This was simply a case of the means, any means, justifying the ends. While Charlie Borden hadn't had many limits, there were a few places he'd drawn the line. But abruptly, Fawkes was forced to acknowledge once again that that restraint seemed to be the exception rather than the rule for those in positions of power. Only, unlike the first experience with Luke Lawson, this time, nothing was going to bring Charlie back.
Claire eyed the Official coldly. "Very well, sir. But I suggest you allow me to check on the progress of conversion at regular intervals. This is the first time I've administered the control factor to a hosted gland," she reminded.
"I'll bear that in mind," he answered without looking up from the report he'd gone back to reading.
"Is my presence required any further?" she snapped, angry.
"Yes, as a matter of fact, it is." Barrington looked up at that as Eberts escorted Eleanor into the office. "Have a seat, Mrs. Stark," he added to the other woman.
Darien shifted in his seat and massaged the back of his neck, hoping to relieve the beginnings of a headache as Claire sat back down.
Eleanor took the chair Eberts pulled away from the conference table for her, settling into it limply.
"Mrs. Stark, I think it's time you tell us what you know about the nanotechnology and its intended use," the Official stated, leaning back in his seat and tenting his fingers.
Eleanor rubbed her eyes wearily. "I've already told you what I know," she sighed.
"On the contrary, madam," Barrington disagreed. "I rather doubt that. For example, describe to us the differences between the nanos being used in the Progeny operation and those you claim are being used against your husband's... family."
Eleanor clenched her teeth against the despairing curse hovering on her lips and made an effort to get a grip on her temper. Sleep deprivation was having a predictable effect on her judgement, and she fought it with the training she'd relied on all her life. "The Progeny nanos as well as those that were designed to affect Jared's bloodlines are essentially the same," she said.
"What is the programming modality?" the doctor spoke up rather sharply.
"In both cases, it's essentially viral." She knew that would cause a stir, but she couldn't bring herself to enjoy it, knowing that with this revelation, everything she had believed in, been raised to safeguard, would become a potential weapon against her people.
"Viral?" Claire demanded, startled. "What about the radio frequency programming variant Allianora infected Darien with?"
Eleanor scoffed silently. "An early prototype," she explained. "Allianora wasn't Chrysalis. If she had been, she'd never have needed the extreme surgery that converted her lungs to an aquatic model. We would never have used the current model on her, simply because there was far too great a chance that she would be discovered, and that consequently, our abilities would be revealed."
She watched Fawkes struggle with this. "You mean she didn't know what you were capable of?" he asked.
"Oh, she knew, Mr. Fawkes. She knew. She simply had no choice if she wished to maintain her health. But you became more important to her than that consideration, and she sacrificed everything for you. Everything." She did her level best to squelch the pain that her husband had shown no such inclination to protect her. It was a fundamental surprise to her that love, that emotion Homo sapiens had spent literally millennia obsessed with, was one she was not immune to. "She loved you," she finished, head bowed. It was only the nearly inaudible whisper from Fawkes that made her look up. She could recognize another's pain when she saw it, and for the first time, she was forced to recognize what she had never until now experienced; the willingness to sacrifice one's life for another. Not an obscure ideal, but a tangible person, a reality. In her case, her life, and the lives of an entire budding race, in exchange for the life of her son.
She gathered her wits and went on. "The current nanos are virally triggered. Bacteria aren't small enough to influence the nanos without engulfing them. Viruses are. Their size allows us to introduce a variety of chemical and EMF signals into the environment and that allows a nearly unlimited range of programming options."
"Viral," the Agency's chief medical officer repeated flatly.
She recognized Claire 'Keeply's' amazement. If she hadn't been living with the reality of the situation for the past two years, she would have probably been similarly surprised. "Viral," she affirmed. "You're at least a decade behind us in virology. We've been creating 'designer' viruses for years, engineering them for a wide range of tasks. When we discovered that by coating the nanos in certain proteins, we could create ones for specific individuals, it was simply a matter of finding ways to program them for various jobs. Sensitized viruses, designed to 'dock' with whatever proteins a nano strain was coated in could then be used as what amounts to miniature programming transmitters."
"So you're telling us that the Stark-variant nanos have been coated in proteins specific to that family line? Then viruses are designed to specifically bond to those proteins?" Claire inquired, obviously the only one in the room who had even a partial grasp of what was involved.
Eleanor nodded tiredly. "It ensures that the nanos can infect only the target population. And the programming viruses can be adjusted for new roles quite rapidly in a lab and then reintroduced to the target host in food, water, anything. They can even be reprogrammed in an MRI field. Tabitha -" she spat the name bitterly "- usurped the basic technology and used it to wage all-out war on my husband's line. There are at least a half-dozen different 'nano-diseases' that I know of currently infecting the genome, and each of them is the result of that... woman's unbelievable ego."
"More like your husband's ego," Hobbes muttered caustically. "He's not exactly my pick for Mr. Congeniality. He probably pissed her off so bad she decided to take him out."
Eleanor ground her teeth, clamping down on the retort sizzling on her tongue, knowing it was only too true. "Tabitha has to be stopped," she said instead, making eye contact with the new power in the Agency, hoping to enlist him in the only recourse left to her: vengeance.
"I'm inclined to agree, Mrs. Stark, though not for the same reasons. It seems the key to obtaining the nanotechnology Chrysalis has developed lies with her. You realize, of course that we will use it to stop Chrysalis?" the Official pointed out needlessly.
"As long as you use the information to save my son and my husband, I don't care what else you do with it."
Fawkes shifted in his seat restlessly, a furrow between his brows. "Well, I do," he stated, scowling at the Official. "Who decides where to stop with this kind of thing?" he asked. "Do we use it to wipe out just Chrysalis? What's to stop us from turning it on the next guys who piss us off?"
"Nothing," the Official replied evenly. "Except our own consciences.
Darien's snort of sarcasm was unmistakable. "What conscience?" was the sotto voce rhetorical question, and his partner's scowl echoed the lack of faith they had in that particular brand of restraint.
"Eberts, what did we discover about the lab location?" the Official went on, ignoring the muttered commentary.
"From what I can determine, it seems to be located in Nevada, in the Yucca Mountain area," Eberts replied. "Presumably, they use the proximity of the nuclear waste disposal site to discourage visitors." He paged through his copy of the transcripts, searching for the reference. "Unfortunately, there are no specifics on the exact location."
The Official turned his attention to the two agents. "Fawkes, Hobbes, we need to find that lab. And more importantly, the viral triggers."
Darien's expression was mutinous, darkly grim, but he held his tongue.
"We'll get on it," Hobbes replied with a noticeable lack of enthusiasm.
Albert nervously wiped his hands on his trousers, straightened his tie, and stepped into his former superior's hospital room. His visit followed on the heels of a sleepless night spent considering any and every option. The display of raw authority Official Barrington had demonstrated the previous morning in forcing Claire to administer the gene therapy to Darien had caught him by surprise with its sheer ruthlessness. What disturbed him even more was that it had been clear from the reactions of Hobbes, Claire and Fawkes that they had been warned. From what Barrington had said, presumably by DCI Lincoln himself.
He had spent the night debating with himself over what to do. In the years he had worked at the Agency, he'd grown fond of Fawkes and Hobbes, and to see Darien returned to the status of chattel rankled. It had been obvious that the agent was angered by that loss of respect and independence, but it had also been obvious that fear underlay the anger. From what Darien had said as Claire had given him the shot the day before, he had been threatened with far worse than simply having the gland in his head turned off. If Carter Lincoln and his Agency appointee, Norbert Barrington, were holding a return to Quicksilver Madness over Darien's head, it was no wonder that Fawkes had been so sullenly angry since Barrington had taken over.
Even worse was the looming problem of the nanobots and their viral trigger. The possibilities for misuse were frightening. He didn't know exactly how serious any of these threats were, but there was one man who would: Charles Borden.
An hour later, he left the way he'd come, even less certain what he should do than before. Since the Official's stroke, he'd visited regularly, keeping his old boss abreast of what was happening at the Agency. The first days after the stroke, Borden had been semi-conscious and non-responsive, and Eberts' conversations entirely one-sided. But slowly in the last few days, it had become clear that his mentor could understand what was said, and as he improved, he'd even attempted to respond, though because of the aphasic effects of the stroke, it was problematic whether Albert was interpreting correctly. But there had been no room for misinterpretation in today's conversation.
Charles Borden had been furious. Not the explosive hot-tempered variety Eberts was accustomed to, but coldly outraged. It had taken a number of stabs at translation, but at last, Charles had assured him he was understanding correctly. Snake. It was more than simply an epithet for Lincoln, it was also the location of something Borden insisted he recover and act on. The problem was, he didn't consider himself a man of action. But the situation was unique. And with his friend completely incapacitated at the moment, there was no one else. No one the Official trusted. Bracing himself, he returned to the McKinley building, prepared to follow the last orders of his friend, mentor, and superior.
Eberts entered the lab, relieved to find it empty save for the animals Claire had accumulated. The large python eyed him unblinkingly from her aquarium, the heat lamp painting her a rosy hue. He approached, nominally glad that at least he hadn't been directed to look in the piranha tank. Or the Taipan viper's, for that matter. He tried to ignore the way the hair rose on the back of his neck as her black forked tongue flicked out, tasting the air as he thrust an arm into her habitat. Gingerly, he lifted one of the thick coils and shifted a large chunk of volcanic pumice to reveal a metal box buried in the gravel. Ignoring the snake's overly friendly attentions to his forearm, he scraped away enough of the stones that he could get a finger under it and pulled it free, shaking gravel off of it as he removed it from its hiding place. He was unable to extricate himself from the placid weight of the snake's body where she'd wrapped a loop around his wrist until he let go of the box and slipped free, then retrieved the cache, setting the top back in place on the aquarium just as the lab door hissed open quietly.
"Eberts?" Alex Monroe's query was tinged with surprise.
"Ms. Monroe, uhm, Zembach! Have you made progress on finding a way to protect Ja - Bran - James?" he asked, hoping to divert her. Flustered, he attempted to hide the metal cache box behind his back casually, only to have Alex spot it and begin to reach for it with an amused arch of one eyebrow.
"What are you doing in here?" she asked him, then frowned as if caught by the incongruity "I didn't know you liked snakes," she said as she closed on him, a grimace distorting her features for an instant. "I don't know how Claire stands them," she added. "Claire sent me in for the results of her latest nano-simulation. She didn't tell me you were here." She eyed him interestedly.
"I umh, I... I was hoping to offer any assistance to you I can," he dissembled as shifted his hold on the cache box, trying to keep it out of her hands. "Have you found a way to safeguard your son?"
"I think so," she replied gravely, clearly appreciative of his concern. Then a slight smirk crept over her mouth as she eyed him. "What, you're stealing dead mice, now? I didn't figure you as a 'candy from babies' type, Eberts," she teased as she caught hold of the cache box and took it from him. When she realized what she held, her surprise went from amused to intent as she flashed him a sharp look. "What is this?" she asked.
Albert flushed, wondering what to say. He wasn't given the chance to answer, however, as Alex opened the watertight box and removed a set of three CDs. Without asking permission, she walked over to Claire's computer and killed the screensaver, popping one of the CDs into the drive and launching it.
Sputtering, Eberts tried to eject it, but she slapped him gently away. "Miss Monroe," he protested weakly. "That is Agency business!"
"And you had it hidden in a snake tank," she pointed out. "Whatever it is, it's not something you got through channels."
"It isn't mine, it's the Official's -" he began.
"Barrington's?" She favored him with a glare, her opinion of that man crystal clear.
"No, the real Official," he clarified, and her steely-eyed glower lightened. "I went to see him this morning," he added, and Alex's face softened.
"How is he doing?" she asked, genuinely interested.
Eberts sighed. "He is concerned at the direction things have taken since his stroke," he told her honestly enough.
Alex exhaled breathily through her nose in agreement with that. "What they're trying to do to Fawkes is a crime," she stated.
"Yes," Albert agreed slowly. "The Official concurred with that assessment." Hesitating, he considered and came to a decision. "He's asked me to pursue a line of inquiry on his behalf... Or perhaps more accurately, conclude it for him," he told her. He needed an ally. Someone who understood the consequences of what the Official had requested of him. Someone who could help him bring Carter Lincoln and his attempt to remake the Agency in his own image into check. "I need your help," he stated.
This time, both eyebrows rose. "Will it help Darien?" she wanted to know.
Again, Eberts hesitated. "I hope so."
"Then you've got it," she replied unequivocally.
Alex leaned over Eberts' shoulder. "There you go. There's always a paper trail if you look hard enough," she said in satisfaction.
"The problem is going to be getting ahold of the corroborating evidence," Albert pointed out, less optimistic than his partner in crime.
"That's why you have me," she flashed him a grin. "And I'm sure Mike will have access to some of this, as well. But what I want to know is what these dates have to do with anything," she went on, getting back to business.
"I have no idea." Eberts scrolled through the columns of dates six across, spanning the decades between the Vietnam War and the Second Gulf War. "It doesn't seem to correspond to any particular events that I can determine," he continued, returning to the top of the list.
Alex drummed her fingers on the lab bench as she considered what the screen displayed, and Eberts stole a glance at her, wondering at the frown between her brows. "I wish the Fat Man had been a little more forthcoming in salting his raw data with clues for us," she lamented.
Eberts refrained from chastising her for the irreverent use of the unflattering sobriquet, settling instead for moving on to the next file the Official had gathered. This one also consisted of six columns of data, though this time, it was made up of names. He scrolled through them, wondering what the connection was.
"Wait a minute," Alex said suddenly, poking a manicured nail at the third column from the left. "Go back, Eberts," she ordered. He did as she'd requested, unsure what it was she was looking for, scrolling back through the columns slowly. At the top of the list, she tapped her finger rapidly on the screen. "My god, that's it," she breathed, stunned.
"What?" he asked, wondering why a single name would cause that reaction. "Who is Julio Dominguez?"
Alex shook her head bemusedly. "Mason Fawkes' first unsanctioned kill," she explained.
"I beg your pardon?" Eberts stammered.
"Forrester Purdue, to you," she informed him
"I was aware of that," Eberts stated warily. "But I didn't know there was more to it."
Alex proceeded to tell him of her two brushes with Darien's father. "We found out that Darien's mother was killed as payback for Dominguez's death."
"Oh dear," Eberts said unhappily, meeting her eyes.
"Darien didn't exactly advertise it," she reassured him. "When he found out his mom had been murdered, he started trying to figure out who'd done it - and why. The last thing he ever expected to find was that his father was indirectly to blame. The problem was, Mason Fawkes didn't have a clue he'd been used. We found a total of seven cases like the Dominguez one, where he'd been led to believe he was operating on orders from the government, but wasn't." She took the mouse away from him and scrolled through the list again quickly. "This is it," she said. "I'd swear to it." She opened the first file again, sizing the windows so she could compare the dates with the names. "Yes," she confirmed, "there it is." She drew her finger from Dominguez's name to the corresponding date on the first list. "May of '76," she nodded to herself, then ran down the list of names and dates, seven in all in that column. "This is a list of Mason Fawkes' unsanctioned kills," she told him.
"But what about the other five columns?" Eberts asked, dread clogging his voice.
Alex straightened, relinquishing the mouse as she folded her arms under her breasts. "At a guess? I'd say it's probably a repeat of the Fawkes situation; unsanctioned kills by unknown NSA or CIA assassins." Her voice was grim.
"But there's over 40 names here!" Eberts exclaimed in disbelief.
Alex began pacing, restless energy crackling off her small figure with every step. Eberts waited, knowing impatience would get him nowhere.
"Forty. My god, Mason will blow a fuse if he finds out," she muttered to herself. Finally, she came to a stop, leaning over him again to eye the paired documents. "This is going to take some research, Eberts, but unless I totally miss my guess, Charlie Borden knew more about what was going on than he had any right to. I don't know if he ever met Fawkes' father, but he sure as hell knew someone had been running a game on the man. And by all appearances, that someone was either our friend Carter Lincoln or someone who answered to him."
"The Official didn't tell me everything, but I wish he had thought to confide in me in this particular situation," Albert said unhappily.
"If these lists are what they look like, we have a compilation of unsanctioned wet operations in the past 30 years or so by a half-dozen agents." Alex resumed her pacing, though this time, it was less frenetic, more brooding. "It's going to take some more poking around in the Fat Man's files, and probably some heavy research time to link specific agents to these names and dates, but I'll take any bet you want that what we're looking at is some political ideologue's idea of practical foreign policy. And from what you were telling me about your 'conversation' with Official Borden, that ideologue's name is Carter Lincoln, current Director of Central Intelligence. I don't know what brought Lincoln up on the radar, but whatever it was, the Official's been gathering documentation of a career spent playing god."
Eberts swallowed, trying to loosen the clench of anxiety in his throat. "I suspect I know how that happened," he replied haltingly, the recollection of Darien's seat-of-the-pants blackmail scheme to safeguard Alison Jennings still vivid in his memory. "What do we do?" he asked.
"We?" Alex quirked an ironic eyebrow at him. "Well, I don't know about you, but if I was the one holding this particular bombshell, I'd think about increasing my life insurance. And I'd make damned sure this stuff was spread around as widely as I could disperse it so that if anything happened, say an unfortunate accident or something, it would hit the news media en masse." She made another circuit in her short path behind his chair. "You know this will make Watergate look like a slow news day, don't you?" she pointed out, a trace of her usual sarcasm flavoring the words.
Eberts tried to force his brain through the flood of possibilities swirling around it, but the only thing he could get a grip on was disbelief that he had somehow found himself in possession of information that could conceivably rock the nation.
"Eberts?" Alex asked as the silence stretched on, "are you alright?"
Albert had no idea how to answer that question. He'd spent all his career happily attending to details no one else considered important enough to waste time on. In the overall scheme of things, he considered himself simply one of those drones responsible for the smooth functioning of the world, allowing those with greater aspirations or higher callings the time to pursue them. Suddenly, that comfortable niche no longer applied. He was the one being called on to act. He was profoundly out of his comfort zone. It was only the recollection of Darien's expression when Barrington had forced Claire to administer the gene therapy designed to leash the gland in his head once again that made Eberts willing to even try to do what the Official had haltingly asked of him. That and the threat that a return of Quicksilver Madness would be used to break Darien to the DCI's will. "I don't know," he said eventually.
"I know that feeling," Alex agreed dryly. "Can I make a suggestion?" she added deferentially, waiting for his nod before continuing. "Three, actually. First, make as many backup copies of these files as you can. Second, make a list of every news organization from the local stations to MSNBC and CNN. Get a copy ready for each of them and give them to a few people to send out if something... happens." She paused.
"And the third?" he asked when it seemed she wasn't going to continue.
"Get this information to Mason Fawkes. He's the best chance you have to put it all together, and if Lincoln and his pet, Barrington, try anything with Darien, he may be the only one who can help."
Eberts simply stared back at her, wondering how on earth he was going to track down Forrester Purdue... or Mason Fawkes. Or whatever the man was calling himself.
My psychic alter-ego, one Ferris Buehler, remarked that "Life moves pretty fast. If you don't stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it." . The problem with that is, I had been. Looking around, I mean. Imagining a normal life - well as normal as life gets with a gland in your head. But it was pretty clear that any hope of 'normal life' and I were parting company . Right about this point, I was thinking maybe a guy named George Santayana had it right when he said: "That life is worth living is the most necessary of assumptions, and, were it not assumed, the most impossible of conclusions". And I wasn't making assumptions about anything, any more.
Carter Lincoln scanned the neatly assembled report Barrington's assistant had compiled on the Chrysalis lab location in Nevada. It was astonishingly thorough, and he wondered how much of the information in it had come from Stark, and how much from independent sources. "Good job, Eberts," he complimented the silent assistant. The faint nod of acknowledgement was appropriately servile, and Lincoln returned his attention to Fawkes and Hobbes, seated across from Norbert's desk. His own perch on the near corner of said desk allowed him to project the illusion that he was there only as an observer.
The two agents paged grimly through their copies of the report and exchanged dark looks as they came to the end of the document.
"Your assessment of the likelihood of penetrating that facility?" Barrington addressed the pair.
Hobbes snorted. "Slim and none, if these security specs are right," he responded tersely. "The place has more armed guards than Fort Knox. And even if we could get past them, there's the electronic security to deal with. They've got pressure-sensitive flooring in places, not to mention the ability to run something like 50,000 volts through the wire mesh in the floor to give anyone in the building a hotfoot, just in case you don't trip the pressure plates. Even if you give Fawkes the control agent and let him do his Saran Wrap thing, they gotta have thermal sensors and who knows what else. And our buddy Stark was a little vague about where in that maze they keep the viral samples you want."
"I say we use the nanos," Darien spoke up for the first time, voice flat.
"What was that?" Hobbes glanced at Fawkes startled. "Nanos? What good'll those things do us? This is a B&E, not a science fair project."
Fawkes exhaled noisily. "Wrong, Hobbesy. My life has been a science fair project for years, now. I say we use the same super-conductor nanos Stark's people developed to screw up Tabitha's earthquake plans to short-circuit the party favors in the floor of the lab."
Lincoln didn't let his surprise show on his face. Darien Fawkes was definitely a great deal brighter than appearances would have led him to believe.
"But Darien," Eberts interjected, a perplexed furrow on his brow, "that nano strain was designed to build a super-conductive grid through the earth's crust, not destroy one." Again, Lincoln concealed his surprise. Perhaps he'd done Eberts an injustice in assuming that crunching numbers was the man's sole skill...
Fawkes shrugged. "Shouldn't be that hard to reverse the programming. I mean, the kind Stark used aren't as sophisticated as Tabitha's, but they were good enough to do the job back in '03. And I'll lay odds, Chrysalis won't expect to have them used against them this early in the game."
Barrington glanced at Carter, and Lincoln nodded contemplatively. He was beginning to see why Charlie Borden had managed to turn the Agency from a relic to a powerhouse. However unprepossessing his top men were, they didn't suffer from the hide-bound thinking that plagued so much of the intelligence community.
"I suggest you speak with the Starks," Barrington said, tacitly approving the plan. "I want to move on that facility before Chrysalis can shut it down and clean it out. I can't stress enough how important securing that technology is, gentlemen," he concluded, straightening the new black leather trimmed blotter that centered the desk in front of him. When he looked up at the dynamic duo again, Carter was surprised to see the unmistakable glint of authority in his erstwhile puppet's eyes.
"As the Agency who revealed this threat, I feel strongly that we should be in the forefront in shutting Chrysalis down. That you should," he said, focused on the two agents who sat opposite him. Carter wasn't sure whether to silently applaud the morale boosting effort, or worry that Norbert was beginning to buy into his stature as head of the Agency.
Apparently, the same concern was shared by Fawkes and Hobbes. "You want us on point?" Hobbes speculated, forehead furrowing, shooting a sidelong glance at Lincoln, as if testing the waters.
"Yes, though for the moment, we'll be running this as an exclusively Agency operation. Since you two know more about what they're capable of than anyone else, your experience will give you an edge on this. And the odds of getting through won't increase with the number of people we send out there, so for the moment, this will be a small-scale insertion. Unless you don't think you can handle it," Barrington added, the note of dry sarcasm obvious to everyone in the room. There was a pause before they responded that Lincoln recognized for what it was: a reevaluation of just who was in charge, here. He found himself uneasy for the first time since he'd put forward his chosen candidate as heir apparent of the Agency.
"Yes sir," Hobbes replied. Only long practice as a powerbroker let Lincoln recognize the skepticism behind the blunt acknowledgment of orders. Fawkes said nothing.
"Dismissed. Let me know what the Starks have to say, and bring me a workable plan by tomorrow night," he finished.
Without a word, Fawkes and Hobbes rose and headed for the door, closing it behind them. Lincoln remained silent, considering possibilities that hadn't occurred to him previously.
"Talk to me, Fawkes," Hobbes said finally, reaching over to adjust the AC temperature settings to counter the long slant of afternoon sunlight arrowing through the driver's side windows of the van. The monotonous desert landscape had unrolled under their wheels all afternoon, Nevada's bleak landscape as desolate as the silence that had stretched between the partners that day.
Darien sighed silently. "Whaddaya want me to say, Hobbes?"
"Oh, I dunno, how 'bout 'hey Hobbesy, how's things? I'm thinking 'bout checking out the boardwalk this weekend, wanna come?'" he suggested sarcastically.
Darien snorted bitterly. "You're married, Hobbes," he reminded him.
"Yeah, and you should be, too," Hobbes repeated an oft-expressed opinion.
"Well, that ain't gonna be happening," Darien answered, doing his best to curb the resentment he felt at being forced to make that admission.
"Crap," Hobbes whispered. "You asked her."
Darien gritted his teeth. "No, I didn't. I took the ring back," he announced tonelessly.
Hobbes shot him a look of disbelief, and Darien did his best to stifle the surge of regret at his decision. "Hobbes, what the hell can I offer her? I mean, both of us know that the second I don't toe the party line in this regime, I'm gonna be doing an instant replay of the first coupla years I had this thing in my head."
"Fawkes..." regret shaded Bobby's voice.
Darien refused to succumb to self-pity. He'd made his choice. "Hey, Hobbesy, I was thinkin' 'bout checking out the boardwalk this weekend. Wanna come with?" he parroted back at his partner.
"Darien. Don't do this, partner. She loves you, man."
"Yeah, and I love her. So you want to tell me how I'm supposed to explain why I'm tryin' to rip out her throat when I end up QSM again?"
"That ain't gonna happen!" Hobbes' attempt at certainty fell frighteningly flat.
"Yeah. It will," Darien replied. "I'm not doin' it again, Bobby."
"We got through this before, we'll get through it again," Hobbes stated firmly.
Darien didn't answer, turning to stare out at a landscape as empty as his hopes.
He moved through the low scrub, tumbleweeds and creosote bush the only signs of life. Regiments of lights adorning the Yucca Mountain lab site made the place resemble an oil refinery, outlining the shapes of the buildings against the Prussian blue of twilight like a gem-studded sculpture, giving the complex a strangely fantastical appearance.
Bobby shifted, trying to ease the cramp in one leg, and then settled onto his haunches to wait for Fawkes to return from salting the perimeter of the compound with the Stark nanos Claire had successfully reprogrammed the day before. He supposed it was fortunate that Eleanor had had access to her husband's safe deposit box, since that's where the sample had been found, but it made Hobbes wonder just how long Stark had been planning his departure from Chrysalis. He had little faith that anything Jared Stark did was without ulterior motives. He only hoped whatever the former head of Sector G had in mind, he and his partner wouldn't end up caught in the crossfire.
It had been years since he'd spent a night watch in the desert. He'd forgotten just how quickly naked soil gave up its heat, and he shivered in the increasing chill of the night air. Even in a desert, January was cold. Especially at night.
A soft rustle of brittle foliage heralded Darien's return to their rudimentary camp, his long-limbed partner materializing faintly out of the darkness. He was a slightly darker shape against the night sky as he joined Hobbes, folding himself Indian-style into a seated position, and he removed the black daypack he'd carried the nanos in without a word.
The brooding silence that had enveloped Fawkes for the past three days worried Hobbes more than he was prepared to admit. It had been a long time since his partner had withdrawn from everyone around him to this degree. Bobby's 'Fawkes radar' was screaming 'trouble' at him, but without something to go on, he had no idea what form that trouble would take. "So, how'd it go?" he asked eventually when it became obvious Darien wasn't planning on volunteering a situation report.
"It went." Darien's clipped answer told Bobby nothing.
"How close did you get?" he tried again.
"Close enough," Darien answered.
Hobbes let the silence work on him, hoping habit would kick in and Darien would elaborate, giving the usual briefing they'd been accustomed to sharing while on assignments.
"If Claire's right and their rate of replication is dependant on materials and power supply, the lab should be knee deep in steel-eating nanobots by morning. I figure we can make our move sometime after midnight. They should have had time to fry the power mesh in the floor by then," Darien said finally.
"D'ya time the patrols?" Bobby asked casually, doing his best not to set Darien off again.
Fawkes nodded. "Just like Stark's intel put it. Three-man teams, passing the checkpoints at 15-minute intervals. Coverage is just a little heavy to walk on in the front door."
"What's the story on their security cameras?" Hobbes persisted.
Darien's shrug was nearly imperceptible in the dark. "Heat-sensitive at the very least. Hopefully Stark was right when he said that Chrysalis isn't up to speed on Claire's thermal inhibitor, cuz if they know about it, chances are, they've already figured out I was inside the perimeter."
Alarm tensed Bobby's muscles. "You think they spotted you?" he asked sharply. "How come they let you waltz on outta there?"
"I don't know, Hobbes," Darien said flatly, the tone discouraging discussion.
"Don't gimme that, Fawkes," Hobbes responded with an equal edge. "Either they saw you or they didn't. So spill it. What makes you think they'd spot you and not put your ass on ice permanently, if they could?"
"I don't know, Hobbes!" Darien repeated harshly. "I just have a bad feeling about this," he added under his breath.
Over the life of their partnership, Hobbes had come to trust Fawkes' instincts implicitly. Very seldom was the former thief wrong when it came to this kind of thing. The usual pre-mission jitters that plagued him suddenly intensified exponentially, and he tugged a prescription bottle out of his breast pocket and downed one of the anti-anxiety meds he'd been on for years as a precautionary measure. He ignored Darien's scrutiny and hunkered down to think.
The dark mood that had descended on Fawkes since the arrival of the new Official worried him considerably more than he'd let on to his partner. The problem was, he understood that mood all too well, having been subject to depression himself. And Fawkes had legitimate reasons for concern, he had to admit. The threat of reintroducing Quicksilver Madness into Darien's gland made it absolutely clear just how little the new 'Powers That Be' thought of Fawkes. His partner was once again relegated to lab rat status, the past wiped out as if the intervening years had never been. He didn't much care for that thought. And even more, he didn't like the feeling developing in the pit of his stomach that told him one way or another, Fawkes would not last long under the current Agency administration.
He'd grown accustomed to their relationship. More than that, he'd come to count on it. It was a friendship that had become part of the bedrock of his life. He wasn't sure if he had the stamina at this point to break in a new partner. He caught himself at that thought, shocked at the awareness that at some level, he was bracing himself for an end to things as they had been. Anxiety ratcheted higher, and he suspected the meds weren't going to touch it, this time.
"I'm goin' in with you," he announced suddenly, and Darien turned his head to peer at him through the gloom.
"I don't think that's such a good idea, Hobbes," Fawkes responded after a moment.
"Why not?" Hobbes demanded indignantly. "We're partners, my friend, and partners don't bail, right?" The silence dragged on for longer than Bobby liked before his partner answered.
"If... If this blows up in our faces, someone needs to be able to give the suits the details," Darien pointed out.
"It's not gonna blow up on us, partner," Hobbes disagreed stubbornly, ignoring the shiver of worry.
"I'm just sayin', in case."
"Yeah, well, it ain't gonna be the case, pal, got it? We're better than any Chrysalis freak out there. We can take this place, Fawkes!" Bobby insisted.
"I'm not sure I can get in there and get out again with the goods if I gotta keep both of us Quicksilvered. Not before the thermal inhibitor runs out, anyway," Darien reminded him.
"So we bring the last two doses of inhibitor with us," Bobby proposed stubbornly.
"I'd have to do that anyway, Hobbes. At least the Keep put the stuff into those patch things. I'd hate to have to stop in the middle of a corridor somewhere and shoot up," Fawkes said with forced humor.
"I wish to hell we'd brought one of the QS backpacks with us," Bobby muttered unhappily. "I don't like the idea of you going in solo."
"It's the safest way, though," Darien said reasonably.
"Maybe, but safe for who?" Hobbes countered.
Darien re-tied his boot, then stood, stretching. Hobbes had kept watch while he tried to doze, but rest had eluded him. It was well after midnight by now, and according to the nanobot timetable Claire had briefed them on, the little saboteurs should have made rust out of the electrified security floors in the lab. That left only the possibility of thermal cameras to worry about, and the inhibitor would hopefully take care of that particular problem. He just wished he could shake the feeling this was not going to be as simple as he hoped.
"Ready?" Hobbes' query intruded on his thoughts.
"I guess," he replied, glancing at his partner. The tension radiating off the smaller man was palpable, but he knew there wasn't anything he could do to ease his partner's worries, not when he had his own. Tugging his black ribbed sweater down again, he wiped the palms of his hands on his pants, and smiled at Hobbes. "Hey, Hobbes... I was thinking about hangin' at the water park this weekend. Feel like comin' with?" he proposed a variation on Bobby's sarcastic suggestion of earlier that day.
Hobbes' snort of laughter made him grin. "It's January, and you want to go to the water park," was the skeptical response.
"No crowds," Darien pointed out as he shouldered his daypack with its collection of B&E equipment.
"Yeah, but it's cold, Fawkes!" Hobbes protested. "What, you lookin' to catch pneumonia or something?"
"Come on, live a little," Darien teased. "Call it a boy's day out," he suggested.
"Make it a hockey game, and it's a date," Bobby chuckled. "If I gotta freeze my ass off, then at least let's make it interesting."
Darien laughed. "You're on," he agreed to the terms. "But you're buyin' the tickets."
"Alright, you cheapskate," Bobby capitulated, and Darien could hear the smile in his partner's voice. "I'll buy."
Darien slipped down brightly lit corridors towards the part of the complex Claire and Eberts had designated as the most likely place for the viral samples they sought. He knew it would take all his skills as a thief - as well as all Eberts' skills with electronics - to make his way into the heart of the lab. The Quicksilver flowed coolly, the strange tingle that came with the thermal inhibitor's presence in his bloodstream making his skin hypersensitive.
It wasn't until he'd penetrated perhaps a third of the way towards his destination that the echoingly empty state of the lab impinged on him. His unease increased sharply as he continued deeper in without coming across so much as a hint of a security guard anywhere along the way. The exterior patrols of earlier that evening were still in place, but there wasn't so much as a cockroach moving around inside. He had a sinking feeling that somehow, Chrysalis had anticipated their move. He was beginning to suspect it would be a miracle if he discovered what he'd been sent in to retrieve.
Still, he pressed on, and perhaps 15 minutes after entering the building from the roof, found himself outside the highest security part of the lab. The biohazard symbol sandblasted into the glass doors confirmed it, as did the clean-room atmosphere inside. He circled the room along the walls, avoiding the center of the lab in favor of the sealed chambers fitted with gloves to allow lab workers to manipulate the cultures inside. Each of them was empty.
No trace of whatever this place had held. But the contents of the fourth chamber brought him up short. "Oh, crap," he whispered as he slipped his hands into the sealed gloves and reached for the steadily blinking detonator, wondering if the trick he'd used to deactivate the last one he'd seen like this would work here, through the isolation gloves.
"Darien, I know you're here," came the calm proclamation from the lab doors behind him.
"Oh crap!" Darien gasped, wrenching free of the gloves as he whirled to face a threat that by rights shouldn't have known he was there.
Hobbes waited. It was only a long career in government service that allowed him to do it without pacing, or cursing, or otherwise railing at the necessity of sending his partner into danger alone. But it didn't mean it was easy. Practice only made it possible, not pleasant.
He and Fawkes had observed radio silence since they'd taken up positions along the perimeter of the laboratory seven hours before, not knowing just how many wavelengths Chrysalis security monitored as a matter of routine. The last thing they needed was to give away their presence by communicating with the Agency.
Bobby hated approaching a situation like this feeling unprepared, but time had been of the essence if they were going to have any chance of liberating this particularly juicy bit of Chrysalis technology. Still, he couldn't help wondering if Fawkes was right when he had expressed his reservations over the potential uses that could be made of such information. Enabling the government to target specific elements of the population sounded way too much like a conspiracy theorist's wet dream. It was moments like this that he cursed his partner's refusal to simply do as he was told. Darien's propensity for questioning authority had begun to rub off on him over the years. Normally, he considered it a good thing. But at times, like now, with his conscience nagging him on top of everything else, he wished he still inhabited the complacent 'need-to-know' world he had when he'd first met Fawkes.
But as someone - Fawkes would probably be able to tell him who - once said, 'you can't go home again'. Which was a rather unsettling thought to have percolate to the top of his brain right now.
To distract himself from the intensifying worry that came with it, he made his way nearer to the compound. He found it strange that the complex was unfenced, but in reality, who was going to get anywhere near this place without being spotted from miles away? Which was why he and Darien had left their van propped up on the jack back on the main road, one wheel off as if abandoned by a motorist in distress. He just hoped they weren't going to have to make a fast get-away.
He circled towards the northern end of the facility, heading for the rear of the main building. It was probably pointless since he knew he wouldn't be able to spot an invisible Darien if the ex-thief made his way back out of the place the way he'd gone in - by the roof, but he was too restless to wait any longer. It wasn't until he reached a point about a hundred yards out and level with the rear loading docks that he had a view that satisfied him.
Well, that killed a whole 20 minutes, he thought, checking his watch restlessly. "C'mon, Fawkes... Let's get the lead out." He knew talking to himself was not a good sign. It meant the pressure was starting to get to him, big time. But short of going in after Darien, there wasn't much he could do but wait.
It was not the desert quiet that answered him, this time.
He felt it before he heard it, the ground under his feet pulsing like the head of a beaten drum. The concussion wave knocked him off his feet as the entire building erupted in a pillar of blue-white fire that clawed its way hundreds of feet into the night sky, partially lifting the structure with it. The building imploded in a cataclysmic cloud of debris launched outward from its center point with all the lethal speed of a hail of bullets, and Hobbes lay on his belly in the dirt, ignoring the deadly rain as he stared at what had been a multi-billion-dollar research facility 10 seconds before. "Darien," he breathed, unable to comprehend what he had just seen.
Scrambling to his feet, one arm thrown up to shield his face from the waves of heat rolling out across the desert towards him, he staggered head-on into the maelstrom, his howl of grief lost in the thunderous detonation. "DARIEN!"
Eberts had managed a miracle in record time thanks to the additional funding the Agency had received with its upgraded status. On the orders of Carter Lincoln himself, he had secured the use of one of the many spy satellites that circled the Earth without having to hack his way into the DOD mainframe for once. He was quickly tapping keys on the computer to resolve the image on the screen hanging on the far wall. The Official's office was the only room large enough to accommodate all those who had a vested interest in what was happening miles away at the Yucca mountain facility.
"There," Eberts finally said as the image resolved into something other than a blur. The view was from nearly directly overhead, but close enough that the conglomeration of buildings was easily discerned. "I can zoom the image closer in if you wish," Eberts deferred to the Official who sat behind his desk with a look of interest on his face.
"Not yet," the Official replied. "Have we heard anything else from Team 1?"
Alex shook her head. "Not since Hobbes radioed that they had arrived. You wanted radio silence maintained," she reminded him.
Eleanor spoke up hesitantly, knowing she was an unwelcome guest and potential hostage at this meeting. "It's possible that there might be interference if Darien had to go into the sublevels." She could only hope that things went as planned. Though given the ability of the partners to thwart Jared's and Chrysalis' plans over the years, it was very likely the outcome would be...
On the screen, the entire building seemed to shift upward for an instant, followed by an odd shimmer of air about the place. Eleanor felt her heart sink into her stomach.
"Albert, what the bloody hell is that?" Claire asked, fright and confusion evident in her voice.
"I'm not..." Eberts' words were cut off as the shimmering building was replaced by obvious flames shooting skyward along with massive amounts of dust and debris.
"No," Alex whispered hoarsely. "Darien..."
"Eberts," the Official barked. "What happened?"
"Sir, it would appear that there was an explosion within the complex." he managed, voice betraying the merest hint of shock. He tapped a few keys, trying to resolve the image through the dust cloud that currently blocked their line of sight view. "Let me... there." Suddenly the infrared view of the area appeared on the screen. "Sir, it's gone," Eberts' voice totally lacked emotion, even though Eleanor, who knew him the least, could see the desperate pain in his eyes.
"Albert?" Claire questioned, her voice sounding oddly lost, as if hoping against hope that he could press a few buttons and make everything right.
The reality suddenly sank in completely. The only hope for Jared, for Brandon had just gone up in a ball of flames. Eleanor knew her next words were going to seem cold to those assembled in the room, but she had no attachment to those here or to those that might have died. Her loyalty, her concern, was for the life of her son. "Alex."
Alex's head slowly turned to stare almost unseeing at Eleanor, the look an obvious mask to hide the deep, heart-wrenching pain that she knew the woman was feeling. "What can you possibly want from me now?"
"Take him. Take Bran.... James and keep him safe." Eleanor hid the rueful smile at Alex's complete and total disbelief at the request. "He won't be safe with me and I know you'll protect him."
"Are you sure about this?" Alex asked as she found the ability to speak again. "You probably won't ever see him again. What about your vaunted Chrysalis ideals?"
"Screw 'em," Eleanor stated pointedly. "With you he has a chance at living, with me..." She shook her head, one hand coming up in supplication. "Tabitha still has the trigger and without the data from... It may be years before a solution is found."
Alex mulled the statements before making a final, irrevocable decision. "All right. Albert?"
"I'll get on it right away," Eberts said in a shaky voice. "Sir, what shall I do about..." He motioned half-heartedly at the screen.
The Official sat there still staring at it in complete incomprehension of the scene before him. "I don't know."
Eberts stepped into the office silently, as silently as he'd moved through the once familiar space since Charles Borden had been hospitalized. It seemed strange that so little had changed, and yet everything had, he mused as he took in the pair of men seated at the desk. Lincoln had arrived at the Agency less than 20 minutes after the Nevada lab had gone up in flames, in response to the call Barrington had made.
Even in the brief time Norbert Barrington had inhabited the office as Carter Lincoln's handpicked protege, the changes he'd wrought were extensive. And none of them for the better, he thought as he bore silent witness to the conversation between two of the most powerful men in the country.
"You think he survived that blast?" the new Official asked with barely veiled disbelief, turning his head to glance at Lincoln in consternation.
"You've read the files," Lincoln reminded him. "All the files," he added pointedly. "Fawkes has walked away from fires and explosions before," he observed darkly. "In this line of work, if you don't have a body, the presumption of death is only that - a presumption. And Fawkes is in possession of the prototype gland. If it's salvageable, I want it. If it isn't, I want it destroyed. It's the only one without the controls built into it that were incorporated into the rest," he reminded tersely.
"I'd say the thing is history if the preliminary reports are anything to go by," Barrington commented wryly. "Besides, the doc retrofitted Fawkes' gland with the same control she built into the rest. Even if he has slipped the leash, he's not going to be pulling any disappearing acts."
"That's more or less beside the point," Lincoln disagreed with a sarcastic lift of an eyebrow. "It's the prototype. What happens if someone else... the Chinese, for example, gets ahold of it? The wetware in Fawkes' head is mine. Bought and paid for by the US government. Letting him waltz off with it isn't in our best interests. As head of this Agency, I'd have expected that to be self-evident." The disapproval was unmistakable, and Barrington winced.
"Carter, that explosion wasn't something someone could've walked away from. According to the initial spectral analysis, the place went up like a torch. It burned at something over 3,000° Fahrenheit. It'd be a miracle if he walked away from something like that.
"Stranger things have happened, Bert. Much stranger." Lincoln turned to eye Eberts as if only just recalling the presence of the surprisingly multi-talented administrative assistant Barrington had inherited along with the Agency. "I presume that's the latest intel from the NSA?" he directed this to Albert, holding out an imperious hand for the uppermost folder Eberts held in a death grip.
Eberts clenched his teeth against the slow anger that simmered in his veins at the callous discussion of an agent's likely death as he obediently handed Lincoln the most recent reports forwarded mere minutes ago. He'd taken the liberty of reviewing them as he hurried from the communications room the new Official had wasted no time installing at his investiture as head of the Agency. The photos of the facility in the deep desert of Nevada had been spectacular, impossible to mistake for anything other than the total destruction of the lab they had so desperately needed to penetrate. The fireball had illuminated nearly a square mile of desert around the lab as the establishment had been dramatically revealed to the eyes in the sky.
Lincoln snatched the folder from him impatiently, opening it to page through the grainy images of the catastrophe. "What the hell took them so long to get the final images to us?" he demanded of Eberts.
"Unknown, sir. The NSA was aware this was highest priority. Keyhole 12 was retasked at your command when Agents Fawkes and Hobbes were given the assignment. It shouldn't have taken them nearly 6 hours to transmit them to us," he stated, having his own private concerns about what had caused the delay.
At least the pompous new head of the Agency, peering over Lincoln's shoulder at the photos, had the grace to pale slightly as the scale of the destruction became obvious. Carter handed the folder to him without comment, barely glancing at the chaos that had been wrought before turning to Eberts.
"What's the 20 on Agents Fawkes and Hobbes?" Lincoln asked. By now, Eberts had begun to master the subtleties of the man's body language and inflection. Carter Lincoln was utterly unrattled by a mission gone spectacularly wrong.
"Unknown, sir," he answered promptly, feeling a sneaking satisfaction at not being able to answer a question he wasn't sure he'd want to even if he could. "They've been out of communication since their final transmission last night, pre-mission.
"Get someone on it," Lincoln started, only to be brought up short by the frosted glass door to the Official's office slamming with a resounding crash against the wall. Robert Hobbes strode into the office like an avenging angel.
Eberts stared at the agent, aghast. The man was still grime-covered and gray with exhaustion, clearly not having slept in well over a day. Black soot, blisters, and smears of what could only be dried blood streaked his face and clothing. A darkening bruise discolored one cheekbone and the filth was a stark contrast to the pristine white of a gauze pad taped high on his forehead. Claire trailed after him like the wake of a ship in her newly conventional white lab coat, eyes and face wet with tears, anger sparking in gray eyes like adamantine in the sun.
Hobbes stalked across the office, a frighteningly feral look on his face, and Eberts swallowed quickly, knowing that whatever had happened, it had been nightmarish. Darien Fawkes was nowhere to be seen. The reality of the agent's death sank in at last. Darien wasn't there. He knew the friendship between Hobbes and Fawkes wouldn't have allowed Hobbes to leave his partner's side if there was any chance Fawkes would need him. The realization of what Bobby's solo appearance meant slithered coldly into his bloodstream like the snake that made up Darien's ouroboros.
"Where have you been, Agent Hobbes, and why aren't you being debriefed? What's the meaning of this intrusion?" Barrington demanded coldly, clearly missing the signals that radiated from Hobbes like forked lightning; jagged, dangerous, wild.
Hobbes' lip curled in a silent snarl as he advanced on the desk, planting his palms on the wooden surface and leaning towards the man behind it like a caged lion trying to attack a tormentor on the other side of the bars. "Intrusion?" he repeated bitterly. "Intrusion?" With that, he reached into the pocket of his filthy suit coat, five years out of style, and dragged out a plastic Ziplock evidence baggie filled with gray ash and fragments of something larger, wrenching it open.
"Intrusion?" he snarled for the third time. "You order us into a secure building with god only knows what frickin' safeguards in place, and you think THIS is an intrusion?" the diminutive agent went on. And with that, he dumped the baggie's contents in a dusty pile on the walnut desk, tiny eddies drifting upwards from the small heap forlornly. "This is all that's left of your frickin' I-Man, you effing son of a g -" his curse was cut off by Claire's gentle touch on his elbow, and Hobbes stopped as if gagged, gulping for air, anger draining away to reveal utter desolation and abject despair. Darien was gone. Eberts knew it without another word spoken, his heart tightening in his chest with a grief that choked him as it did Hobbes. His vision blurred.
Albert hadn't initially been convinced by his former superior's halting, stroke-blurred speeches painting Carter Lincoln as ruthless to the point of being dangerous to national security, but the evidence the original Official had acquired to support that claim had finally convinced him. Eberts had still been reluctant to do as Charles Borden had asked, not sure he had the strength to do what had to be done. But that reluctance was gone. Darien Fawkes was dead. Any reason to wait was gone, and it was clear that Carter Lincoln had had Barrington send him to that desert lab without sufficient preparation or information. He owed this man no loyalty.
"It might as well've been a frickin' trap, you sonovabitch." Hobbes whispered. "And Fawkes went in there like you told him to. So take it. It's yours. All seventeen million dollars worth of it. And I hope you burn in hell for what you did to the kid." With that final curse, Robert Hobbes reached into his breast pocket and removed the bi-fold leather wallet that housed his ID and dumped it on the desk, then ejected his clip from his sidearm and thumbed the bullets out of it as if he could somehow impart the momentum of his rage to them. They tumbled onto the wooden surface one after the other with a clatter. When the last cartridge hit the desk, he turned on his heel and marched back towards the door. Albert stared at Claire, catching her eye, seeing the impotent rage and the anguish that darkened the familiar expression. She too wrenched off the ID that had decorated her lab coat since Barrington had taken over, slamming the plastic badge on the desk beside the gritty pile.
"My resignation will be on your desk in the next hour," she stated flatly, and turned to follow Hobbes.
Eberts and the senior powers-that-be watched the desertion of two of the Agency's finest silently until the pair vanished, and even the sound of their rapid footfalls had faded. It wasn't until then that Lincoln reached towards the pile of ash on Barrington's desk, fingering the fine dust as he sifted through it for larger fragments. He found little to confirm the source, but at the bottom of the pile, there was a lone intact tooth, a molar, cracked and blackened. Lincoln picked up the single unmistakably human artifact, turning it between dusty fingers, handing it to the new Official "Have this checked against Fawkes' DNA records," he suggested in a tone that left no doubt it wasn't a request, but a command. "I'd suggest you see to it personally," he added at his appointee's momentarily blank expression, and Barrington got up hastily, tucking the tooth into the now-empty baggie that lay abandoned on his desk.
Eberts knew that once again, Carter Lincoln had forgotten his presence as the man settled back into the luxurious leather of the new chair that faced the Official's desk, fingers of both hands laced over his flat stomach, the faintest of satisfied smiles curving his mouth.
Knowing that waiting would serve no purpose and probably erode his earlier resolve, Albert lay the second file he carried on the desk in front of Lincoln with a soft clearing of his throat. He saw Lincoln startle slightly, reminded of Eberts' silent presence. With a quizzically raised eyebrow, the Director of Central Intelligence picked up the folder, glancing inquiringly at the mute assistant. "You forgot something?" he assumed aloud as he opened it.
"Not precisely," Eberts countered, watching as the comfortable mantle of power slipped noticeably when Lincoln's head snapped up, the same deadly expression in his eyes that had been there when Darien had first balked against the tightening noose of authority. "Former Official Borden wished me to make sure you received this particular file privately."
(June 27th, 2033)
He ignited the gas fireplace in direct violation of the anti-emission laws designed to prevent unnecessary contributions to escalating greenhouse gas levels, settling back in the armchair in front of the flames that had been his personal haven for much of the past three decades, briefcase in his lap. He opened it, lifting out the dusty file folders he'd removed from the Agency, setting them on the end table under his reading lamp, then put the battered leather case on the floor beside the chair.
He opened the first of the folders, sighing as he tossed the top handful of fragile papers onto the flames, watching them flare with jewel colors as old solvent-based inks ignited. It reminded him of his childhood and Christmas morning, when his father would burn the drifts of wrapping paper remaining after the frenzy of gift-opening. It was strangely symbolic in its way, the act of destroying government records. The last gift he had it in his power to give the people who had helped change his life. An old promise at last being kept. Darien Fawkes' record would be permanently cleared. The ex-thief would be remembered not as a petty criminal, but as a hero, instrumental in revealing the global threat Chrysalis posed.
As would those who had worked with him; the brilliant scientist he'd known at the time only as Claire Keeply, and Darien's partner, mentally troubled agent Robert A. Hobbes, who for all his difficulties, had been the single most talented and dedicated operative he'd ever known. And the lovely five-star rated Alexandra Monroe, whose own battles with Chrysalis had proved pivotal in the organization's unveiling. Piece after piece, the contents of the files went onto the flames, a farewell ritual he'd put off until the absolute last possible moment, somehow loathe to cut himself off from the very people that had made him what he was: now-retired Director of the Anti-Genomic Terrorism Agency. It still seemed odd after all these years to put a name to an organization that had had none for more than half its existence.
It took the better part of 30 minutes to sort through the papers and consign them to the cheerful flames that ate through old records greedily. But at last he was left with only the last few sections of the final file, the newest of the four, though still decades old. He set the whole folder on his lap with mingled fondness and sadness and opened it to the collection of surveillance photos that occupied the bulk of the contents.
The first image, though, a standard governmental ID photo, was of Darien as he'd appeared shortly before the events that had changed Agency history, luxuriant hair still thick, its once spiky up-right style modified reluctantly in the course of government service. It was the last official photograph of the man who had been the founding Agency I-Man. Similar government ID photos of Hobbes and Dr. Keeply were next, curling in the fire as flames blackened the old pictures into ashy anonymity.
"Sweetheart?" his wife called from the door of his study, poking her silver head through the entrance with a smile that still warmed him. "It's almost dinner time," she informed him as she stepped to his side and bent to place a kiss on top of his skull. He smiled back into sapphire eyes that hadn't changed in all the years they'd been married, regardless of any other tell-tales the passage of time had wrought on each of them, then tossed the next photo into the fire. Together they watched it shrivel and wisp away to white ash.
"I never saw that one," she commented as he lifted the next to last image from the folder. It was a standard black-and-white surveillance photo, grainy and poor quality at best, but the people in it were unmistakable, even if the location might have been anywhere from San Diego to the Bahamas, an outdoor garden setting replete with palm trees and flowering shrubs the only clue to place. In the foreground, Agent Robert Hobbes and Claire Keeply stood poised, the paranoid little agent clearly searching the area for signs of the very surveillance that had captured them. Claire too peered anxiously over one shoulder, a hand outstretched towards the slender blonde young man a few paces behind her, his face half-turned away. Their attention was focused on something in the distance. Something the camera had not registered. "Wasn't that just before Adam went off to Yale?" she asked, taking the picture from him.
"It's Alex, now, and yes," he reminded her, gently retrieving it from her fingers and setting it on the fire with the rest of its companions. "It was."
Samantha smiled at him fondly, compassion in her expression as she kissed him again on the cheek. "I'll call you when supper's on the table, Albert," she told him and left him to his musings, shutting the study door after herself.
The last image, from the same sequence of photos as the previous one, showed a worried Hobbes, Claire, and Adam from a different angle, a fountain with its reflecting pool directly behind them. Again, their attention was focused off-camera, the only hint as to what it was they were looking at caught as an out-of-place ripple in the water at the pool's edge, blurring any reflection that might have hinted at the object of their attention. It was a mystery that today's technology might have been able to unravel, should someone ever have stumbled across the image, and as he tossed it onto the fire with its mates, he smiled slightly. "Happy birthday, Darien," he said quietly, then stirred the ashes with the fireplace poker and rose, shutting off the gas before leaving the study and a career of secrets, closing the door on them at last.