It had been about three years since she had taken head of the segment of Human Resources that got her an office with a view of the bay. It wasn't bad for a lady with a cane and graying hair if she had to think about it. The money was good and she had earned it without a doubt. Her life had been a literal whirlwind for the last two years but she had managed. An office with only her name on the door and pictures of her parents and best friend on her desk makes her feel like she's done well for herself and in fact she has, considering what she's been through.

In her inbox she already had a sheaf of After Action Reports and other correspondence to read. That included several memos from other parts of HR and a card with a half dozen lilacs in tow. Opening her door with a sniff of the fragrant bundle she shuts the door and plops the lot of it on her desk before standing at her panoramic window and looking at the 0907 sun rising over the water. If she didn't do this first her day turned sour faster without fail and she had learned that no matter what happened in life it was the little things that made life livable and worth living as well. Yet, no matter what anyone else on the floor thought, DataDyne didn't pay her to stare out at the water all day and she did earn her keep so at 0915 she took a deep breath and sat at her desk and started doing her job.

After Action Reports are written by employees of DataDyne who do operations, covert and mundane alike. You can write one for infiltration and successful missions or one for requisitioning a stapler and getting told off by the supply manager. Depending on the context and nature of the report it would get funneled all over the estate sized HR building that DataDyne officially called a civilian headquarters but unofficially called "The Bin". AARs could determine who would be promoted, demoted, if a mission was a success or not and the intelligence of the person writing it all at one time so it was paramount to handle them with the utmost care.

"Harriet, hold my calls. I'm in paperwork." The executive says to the secretary for her division. "I am free to receive again in 30 minutes unless I tell you otherwise."

"Understood, chief."

Hanging up the phone she starts reading reports and thinks back to the times she used to write them herself. She was no stranger to action but she had gotten a lucky transfer to the HR and it was not only lucrative but didn't hold the constant pressure of sudden death that her old positions had held. Yet the agent in her was still there, even in the way she communicated on the phone. Brief, terse and efficient as though being monitored at any second. Reading her first report of the day she sighs at the barely intelligible English used in it by the squad leader and his report of four lost agents to "hilee precize shots 2 the midsection" in the notable events section. After reading the proceeding reports from his surviving members she had gotten what she needed to know and started typing her replies.

These reports had been Cc to her by the so called "Hot Section" of HR and she wasn't replying to the squad leader and his men but to the families of the people who had been killed in action. This was her career now, sending condolences and informing families of their options and benefits entitled to them by DataDyne of having a family member killed in the line of duty because of hostile action. She had already developed several rubrics for the letters she used for final correspondence and the formats usually depended on the time of service and the nature of the death, which she didn't detail in the letter but considered when trying to explain just how someone was killed on the battlefield. She looked back, just like every morning, on how she could end up in The Bin after being a special operative.

XXXXX

"Cee Cee, did you pass your marksmanship exam?"

"You know it, Tam! Did you?"

"Only by a little but I made it!"

"Well I taught you to shoot so you'd had better have!"

"You think we'll get assigned to the same unit?"

"I called in a favor so we should...otherwise I'm transferring to where they put you."

"You're the best Cee Cee!"

"Miss Cecilia, you have a call on line one."

"What, Tam?"

"It's Harriet, ma'am and you have a call on line one and one holding on line two also."

Shaking off her reverie, Cecilia blinks rapidly and composes herself. "Forgive me, Harriet. I was distracted."

"It's alright, Miss Cecilia. Can I put them through?"

"Yes, of course..." Picking up the phone. "Yes this is Cecilia Kendall. It is most unfortunate and I am sorry for your loss..."

XXXXX

It was half past noon and sitting at her desk on her lunch hour Cecilia couldn't help but notice local authorities dredging the bay. They had been at it a while and it seemed suspicious but after asking around there wasn't any operations scheduled by DataDyne that she could get information on that seemed local for today through official or unofficial channels. She was just being a snoop but it was the agent in her that demanded an explanation for such a display of manpower and she wasn't going to pretend she wasn't interested.

"That is the fourth sweep I've seen." The executive thinks to herself. "They have to be looking for a body but what kind of information could they have that would produce a body along such a wide radius? They sweeping well out past the reef and I can't even see how far and I'm up fifteen stories...very suspect." She picks up the phone. "Harriet, get me Blake in Hot Ops."

"Yes ma'am."

"Load up 'n smoke 'em hot, this is Blake how can I help you?"

"Still no manners..." Cecilia scoffs. "Don't you want to keep your job?"

"Not really." Blake replies. "My gopher told me who was on the line, I don't act that way all the time but I'm going stir crazy in this bin. I'm made to do operations, not direct from well past radio range."

"I didn't ask you that."

"Business as usual, huh Cee Cee?"

"Cecilia." She insists.

"Okay Cecilia." Blake replies with an audible eye roll. "I don't see how you can just run the rat race in this damn cage so well but I can see this isn't a social call; how can I help you here in the Ongoing Operations Department?"

"Why are local authorities so interested in the bay?"

"You noticed, too? I saw a flash yesterday about quitting time around sunset, red/gold style. I'm thinking an incendiary type, some real fireworks and maybe a vessel went up and they're searching for body bag meat. Your department I might add."

"Shut it, Blake. Get back to me when you're sure."

"You want intel on the local blue suits?"

"Find out what's in the water."

"Understood, out."

Hanging up the phone she thinks on the matter a few minutes more. If Blake didn't have a scoop then it wasn't DataDyne related. Blake would get the scoop since she asked (and that was one of his specialties) but it'd be a few hours. The fact that she still had combat contacts was a testament to the life she had believed herself destined to lead. Talking to Blake still stung every time though. He always asked how she could work in the Bin after loving combat so much. The truth was she didn't know. She had sworn that she'd die before riding a desk but here she was. It felt like a betrayal but what else could she do? Leaning back she reminisces again, retreating to the memories for an answer she's never found...

XXXXX

"They told me I broke records on speed and accuracy with my weapon. That no other DataDyne operative was as good with a magnum as I was before or since."

"Well you live on the range. I swear you're like Annie Oakley with that six-gun...I wish I could do that..."

"Tam, you did fine."

"I barely passed..."

"Well if you didn't insist on using that piece of junk MagSec4 you'd have a lot better accuracy."

"I like it though."

"And it shows in your spray and pray scores." Tam sighs at that comment and Cecilia is contrite, just like she'd just said it. "Well I mean it's a versatile weapon but it's not going to drive nails like my revolver and I swear you should have picked something with a little more stopping power but...it's still a pocket machinegun."

"See, that's good isn't it?"

"Falcon2 are all standard issue for DataDyne personnel but...I don't recommend garbage from Carrington Institute either."

"Well everyone can't haul a DY.357 like you."

"I just hope that thing doesn't jam on you; revolvers never jam."

"I know I know I know, cowgirl!"

Tamara called her that from then on. It amused her to no end to hear her yelling that in training or even on operations they did together. But only Tam was allowed her that and never in public. It was just between them.

XXXXX

"Miss Cecilia, you have a call on line 3." The phone on her desk crackles to life and flashes on the third line as it speaks. "It's Ongoing Operations."

"Put it through."

"Hey Cee Cee, I got news for you that you prolly wanna hear."

"What'd you find out?"

"Word is a boat went up, clandestine style. They don't know who, if anyone, was on it but I will bet my carbine and the proxy mine on it that someone is in several different zip codes by now."

"Several?"

"They're dredging splinters out of the bay. That's it. No trace of anything else but that and burned pieces of metal that are prolly motor and hull bits. The thing is the local Coast Guard have record of a boat on the water in the area at that time registered to a Jane Doe."

"That's a really nice name to give a child."

"I know, right? I pulled the license picture on the ID that registered the boat. Came up with this. Check your terminal."

Cecilia turns and checks her computer. Sure enough a message from another department is in her mailbox with an attached picture. Her face goes white at the image, as though she's seen a ghost. "It can't be..." She whispers to herself.

"The face looks like I should know it. Probably a C.I. Operative we had on watch. I sent the pic over to the dispatcher in Special Purpose. He's running it now, prolly some mission that got a little extra attention with all that ordinance."

"What kind of explosives?"

"They found fish belly up in about a 100 yard radius. I don't know what they used but I'm pretty sure someone was coverin' somethin' up."

"I think I know the face, she's a C.I. legend if I'm right."

"I'll get back with confirmation."

"Understood." The line goes dead on the desk and she stares at the screen again. "Her...I will never forget that face..."

XXXXX

"I got some good news I'm thinking you want to hear."

"What's that, TamTam?"

"I got an offer for the Sigma Assignment."

"You did? Good job!"

"Please, Cee Cee. You got that and offers from covert and counterintelligence and everything else from under the sun."

"But I was thinking of going Sigma-"

"I know, so we can go together!"

"Well...if we're going to do it together make me proud, Tam!"

The Sigma Assignment is a special detail that was unique because only women get selected for it. It was one of the most lucrative assignments you could get as you were a part of the detail directly responsible for the guarding of Cassandra De Vries. While she was not a lovable person she spared little by way of expense in bodyguards. Except in one case.

"Cecilia Kendal, expert in the use and maintenance of rifles and pistols, current company record holder of the proficiency in the use of the DY.357, 34 confirmed kills over 13 operations with completion rate 89%, age 24. Currently in uppermost bracket of special assignment reserves you have been selected as a candidate for Sigma Elite briefing and training."

"That is an honor, ma'am but..."

"But?" The recruiter is quizzical.

"I don't do any team missions without my partner, Tamara Storm."

"Tamara Storm, proficient in use of MagSec4 handgun, Dragon and Shotgun qualified. 11 kills over 8 operations with completion rate of 72%, age 23. Failed to qualify for covert operation, relegated to low level clearance currently stationed as an Armory Technician. Looking at her file I do not see where her skills are at all related to your own or needed to improve your efficiency."

"I do not take long term assignments without my partner."

"Her skills are mediocre and do not meet the qualifying criteria for an invitation even for basic Sigma assignments."

"Then I will go back to the reserves or be a gun tech. You can tell that to De Vries if she asks about me."

That was how Tam got her invite to Sigma training. Cecilia had never told her either and it never had truly been relevant. Everyone who trained was handpicked after the testing to go on or be eliminated and Tam never got cut even though she sensed that she should have and mentioned it to Cecilia more than once even though Cecilia was always at the head of the class and showing up the instructors with skill with a revolver. None of it was relevant. It was just so they could do it together.

"I should have never turned the lights out..."

"Well we don't turn the lights out, Miss Cecilia. The cleaning crew turns them out when we leave."

Startled out of her reverie yet again, she snaps to alertness and turns her chair from the waves to face the door. "Harriet, is it time to go home?"

"Well we have a few more minutes but you have been distracted all day and I doubt another forty-two minutes will make you more productive. I have derailed more of your calls today than someone dodging a bill collector."

The phone rings and Cecilia answers it absently on speakerphone. "The Loss Department, this is Cecilia Kendall speaking."

"Cee Cee, I got the dossier back on the agent I showed you earlier. She's the gold standard for the Institute that put everyone on alert a few years back, the crème de la or used to be. Word is now that the stunt in the bay was her finale. Another burn out in the biz..." Blake laughs at his morbid joke.

"It's not funny!"

"Aww, come on! Hey, isn't she the one you named your bullets after, Joanna Dark? You should be glad and laugh with-"

Cecilia disconnects the line. Wordlessly she pulls up the image from before and turns the screen towards her secretary. Harriet is visibly shaken and wobbles unsteadily on her feet but manages to stay erect.

"That face is still worth a dizzy spell." The assistant says slowly. "I still have flashbacks of the red alerts with her face on them..."

"I do too." Cecilia admits. "Even with her finally dead we won't be out of work anytime soon."

"There will always be casualties and us to break the news..." She agrees with a sigh. "Are you going to go see Tamara today? She'd love to hear the news."

"I may." She gets up to leave, a bit slower than usual and braces on her desk before fumbling for her cane. "If I'm up to it. I'm sure she'll understand if I can't."

"I'm sure."

Out in the car Cecilia starts it and swears as she adjusts the seat yet again. A serious back injury in the field had made sitting in a car seat hell for her but she insisted on driving to work because she had a job to do that she felt she had an obligation to complete. The last time she'd heard someone else say that name it had been when she had turned in her After Action Report for her final mission to her commanding officer and he read it back to her. She was inwardly in turmoil yet again over it as she filed her car onto the congested interstate.

"Is that the you got a thing about?" The HR head says in a mocking tone thinking back to Blake's nonchalant attitude. "I swear...you know you'd hate the one who put you out of action, too...but then again you're a victim of bureaucracy. You just ran things too well to be appreciated the way you needed to on the battlefield...and by the time you realized what happened you were too old to go back. Your own fault."

While his problem was a series of bad choices hers was quite simple. She was not a field agent because she had taken two rounds in the back and one of them still was in a place that rendered it inoperable even with current medical technology. They said it was a miracle every day she got up and walked to the bathroom but Cecilia begged to differ.

"I should have never accepted the position."

Unlike what she had been given to understand, guarding the great Cassandra De Vries had been a series of snooze fests. Combining that with the fact that any disturbance usually was quashed by the presence of the normal bodyguards and that the elite ones, who only numbered seven, spent their entire shifts with De Vries in direct lines of sight and that Tam had barely qualified for the standard bodyguard position the assignment had been a serious let down. Her and Tam got no quality time and Tam ended up relying on her section of the team more than Cee Cee, since Cee Cee was quite literally attached by the hip to Cassandra De Vries.

"Up until that night..."

Tam had been working hard on her skills as a bodyguard. Unwilling to accept that she had barely made the cuts she had been training more and more on her own and had qualified for Elite Sigma duties before long without telling Cecilia. Her experience on assignment and her willingness to do her job as best as it could be done made her an excellent candidate after just a few months of rigorous self improvement. It had been her third night of Elite duty when they were called into red alert active status. A covert operative had been detected in the building and it was uncertain if eliminating Cassandra was an objective or not. Regardless for them priority one would be her protection and the regular guards on duty were tripled and the entirety of the elite seven were put on high alert. It was her duty as Squad Leader for the Sigma Elite force to tactically decide what would be the best way to safeguard De Vries and while De Vries was the main objective she still had a duty to her unit to minimize their injuries or loss of life as best she could.

"De Vries was in jeopardy and expected us to do our jobs and we failed."

It had been a tense evening. The operative had been running amok throughout the building and had already knocked the CEO out once to use a key necklace to obtain access into a top level clearance laboratory downstairs and abduct an artificial being of utmost importance. The amount of reprimands that had been given out to the guards on duty was only exceeded by the sheer number of their personnel that they had been losing to what seemed like a lone operative. Dozens were injured and it was unclear how many would survive the night just for encountering this mystery agent. De Vries called the Elite together and made rendezvous on the top floor for a plan that Cecilia hadn't approved of and neither of them had time to regret it as their visitor had shown up only minutes after managing to take out their patrol hovercopter.

"I should not have turned out the lights..."

The agent, who turned out to be female and around the same age as Cecilia, turned up in the middle of the planned ambush. Holding nothing but a Falcon2 she fired on Cecilia standing in the center as she turned off the lights. Cecilia, anticipating this, had her shotgun covering her torso so that center mass would be non-lethal. This had saved her life but her shotgun had been sacrificed, two rounds had damaged the action and rendered it useless. Even though she had drawn and fired her magnum in one fluid motion directly afterward dropping the long arm she could hear one of her girls drop from another Falcon shot before the lights went out. Tracking the noise and throwing on her nightvision as fast as she could she moved to intercept and neutralize the agent and got a round in the back for her trouble and fell to the ground. Frantic feet around her made her wish she could find a target but she couldn't roll over in time to help another one of her girls, who fell to the ground next to her with her neck at an odd angle. In the scuffle her magnum had been kicked away and in the dark there would be no finding it, goggles or not.

"The lights!"

Now, just like back then she's focused on the lights and finding the strength pushes her comrade off of her and struggles to her feet to grope for the switch. It's a tableau of horrors when the lights come back on. Even lightly stunned by the lights and wearing night vision of her own the agent is wrestling a shotgun away from another one of her girls. As Cecilia watches the operative takes the weapon and smashes the butt right across the owner's face heavily, shattering her goggles and watching the girl slump lifelessly to the ground then fires the weapon backwards under an arm at someone unsure to fire a shotgun close to an ally. Dropping the shotgun the operative does a fast spin with pistol drawn sweeping the room for targets.

With just Cecilia alive but still barely able to stand she dives for cover and takes another round in the back and remembers her revolver's lanyard just a tad tardily hearing it follow her along the ground. Yanking on the cord attached to her belt and the butt of her sidearm she drags the six-gun along the floor quickly, sparks kicking up from it scraping and the shots from the agent trying to render it inoperable on the move as well. With a final flick of the wrist the weapon bounds back into her hand and she blind fires back along the wall at the agent once, twice, then two more times.

"I got that bitch too..."

A resounding girlish scream vibrates the walls as a 158 grain slug finds a mark. Cecilia breaks cover as she hears a body tumble to the floor, hunched over and barely standing with magnum in both hands and barely can turn her head as a laser dances along her nose and onto her jaw and small caliber round slaps into the side of it, putting a hole through both cheeks. Satisfied that she had dispatched all of the guards and on what has to be a time constraint with the amount of activity that's obviously just a floor below the agent was reloading her pistol and staggering to her feet. In scant seconds she is limping up the stairs to the roof as fast as she could, presumably for extraction. At a glance what looked like a round through the shoulder and a wound in the butt, bleeding all the way down her left leg were the damage they'd dealt back to the operative. With Cassandra De Vries unaccounted for, Cecilia waits just a few moments playing possum before reloading and lumbering after the intruder.

"I was too late..."

The operative had made it to the roof and it was there that the last two of the elite bodyguards had been stationed, lying in wait for Cassandra and anyone else who pursued her. They had been specifically instructed to wait there unless otherwise directed by De Vries herself. De Vries had been waiting for the operative and it was her last two guards who were her trump card. Barely making the last flight of stairs Cecilia had been just in time to see Cassandra taunt the agent and the agent kill both of the surviving guards as a response, escaping into the night.

"TAM!"

Tam and the other guard had both taken a round and the wounds were mortal. With a burst of strength that seemed unreal Cecilia ran to the side of her friend but...there was nothing to be done. The other guard had taken the bullet in the brain but Tamara was alive and suffering from the hole in her neck.

"Hey cowgirl..."

"Tam, baby hold on!"

"That redhead was fast...did you see?"

"I saw."

"I just wanted to make you proud..."

Before Cecilia could say anything the wounded bodyguard sighed blood and her head lolled to one side. Words could not describe the pain she was in as she closed the eyes of her best friend with a bloody hand. Tamara Storm was dead.

Dear Elizabeth and Leland,

There is no easy way to tell you this but you should hear it from me first than anyone else. We've been on a special detail that I cannot give the particulars of but our last mission Tamara and I were wounded in the line of duty and she didn't survive the operation. I know that you are less surprised than I was when I got the news only because you had to wait a few days for this letter to arrive and know the nature of the occupation your daughter and I were in but I was there when she passed on and I think you should know that she did you, her company and me proud in her solid performance of her duty until her last breath. This is something no parent should ever have to read and I don't have to have children to know that but she was a sister to me and just like I can't understand what it feels like for you to lose a daughter you cannot understand what it feels like to have been helpless to save her. I would have given my life in exchange for hers but all I could do was try and fail. The doctors aren't sure I'll walk again but that is unimportant.

Enclosed with this letter are two phone numbers. One is to the DataDyne Human Resources Loss Department in order to discuss exactly what the company does for you in this event. The other is for me day or night. My mother does not even have this number but I am sure Beth will need to talk and I am always available for either of you.

I can't tell you how many times I have rewritten this letter or how many pieces of paper have been soaked with tears before I actually managed to get this one to you. I can't say any more on this piece of paper, ink simply cannot contain what I want to convey to you. When you make Tam's final arrangements I will fly out immediately, we will talk more then but know this now...

You will never understand the depth of guilt and pain I feel for what happened to Tamara and I do not expect your forgiveness as I will never forgive myself.

Sincerely yours,

Cecilia Kendall