Don't stop believing...after months of fevered work, here's the final chapter of Big Sister, clocking in at almost 14k words - twice the usual chapter. Further good news: with this, we are also able to publish the next chapter of Recycled, which has been in various stages of completion for three years now. Our plan after this is to go back and clean up the beginning of Rebuilt before we move on - over the course of the years-long writing process, we have grown more and more dissatisfied with the rather uneven "pilot" that serves as the first point of contact for new readers, and we're aiming to fix that. But don't fret - we're dedicated to bringing you not only a new look at the night that started everything, we're also very much still in the game as it concerns continuing the story from here. Keep the faith, true believers! Jaime Sommers WILL RETURN IN "Shadows".
In the basement of the San Francisco FBI field office, there was a tract of a dozen holding cells - frequent temporary homes for the hard-hitters of violent federal crime. Tonight, however, the kidnappers and bank robbers and spree killers had to make do with the hospitality of the detention center at the federal courthouse. That left only one occupant: Antonio Pope, fresh from his tour through the photo booth and fingerprint processing. The entire process had annoyed him slightly and bored him greatly; he hadn't talked, wasn't planning on talking, because he knew what the result of all this theater would be. He heard the door in the hallway open and got up from his bunk, walking up to the barred door with a slight smile. This set of footsteps belonged to Jonas Bledsoe, who wasn't feeling much like smiling; he weighed the set of keys for the holding room doors in his right hand as he walked, and gave Pope a quick visual inspection before he unlocked the door.
"That was a little louder than I wanted it," Bledsoe said. "We're not getting ballroom surveillance footage from Sandra, obviously. Did you get a good look at the item?"
"Metal cylinder, black box topside with a green light, dimensions seemed to match the box," Pope replied casually. "Item 63, if I have to guess."
"Major Walker agrees," Bledsoe said. "So the question becomes, what can a motivated terrorist do with Item 63?"
"Anthros would know," Pope said.
"He would," Bledsoe agreed.
"Just considering our options, Sir," Pope said.
"No, you're right, we need him for this," Bledsoe said. "God, I hope we can get the geeks up to speed soon. One less primadonna in this outfit."
"You went easy on Summers again?" Pope asked.
"Let's postpone that topic," Bledsoe said, fishing for his cellphone. With a few taps, he selected Will's number and dialed it. It only had to ring twice before Will picked it up.
"Anthros," Will answered.
Bledsoe suppressed a grunting sound and put his phone on speaker, holding it out for Pope to listen in. "Anthros, listen up," Bledsoe said. "We've got a situation here, involving what we think is intact Millenium tech. Preliminary puts it as Item 63, but we're not a hundred percent on that. The bad guys have it. What's our worst-case scenario?"
"Fuck. What's the worst case? That I've been right all this time and you've let a psychotic bionic assassin get her hands on the means to build her own bionic strike force," Will shouted.
Bledsoe let that hang in the air for a second, waiting for the shouting to stop.
"I said that it was Sara Corvus that took down Millenium, and even your own lap dog said that seemed to be the most likely case, but you never followed up on it, and look where we are now, Bledsoe." Will took a deep breath. "What is the situation? Where is she taking it? Is there any chance she's assembled the other pieces she needs to start building those...things?"
"You're trying to fit the evidence to your conclusions again, Anthros," Bledsoe said. "Millenium was likely destroyed by an augment, yes, we didn't have access to Corvus's body after we killed her, yes - but that didn't add up to proof she was alive, and being right about that now does not make you a visionary then. But let's play your game. What can Corvus do with just Item 63, what is she going to be looking for to complete her set, how do we fight what she could build? Those are the relevant questions here, Anthros."
Will sighed, and both Bledsoe and Pope both saw him rubbing his eye with his left hand. "Item 63 is the heart of their design, it's their take on the brain-machine interface. That's what makes it so dangerous, if you have that and you have their schematics, you can start cranking out Millenium augments. She'll need a lot of electroactive polymer muscle, optical fiber, actuators, the whole set of equipment, but that box is the key that ties it all together. And as for fighting them, you know how tough those Millenium augments were. Big ugly brutes of solid polymer muscle and titanium alloy bone, and an armored brain tank."
"Full-on augments are bad news," Pope said. "I saw some of their footage. They sent the prototype to clear out a crew in the Paris boonies. Rips doors off their hinges, goes through light brick walls, shrugs off a couple magazines of assault rifle fire. Millenium didn't give a damn about infiltration. Those things are human-shaped tanks, they barely pass as people. Corvus, at least we managed to bring her down with focused fire. I don't see us stopping one of those things with anything man-portable, Sir."
"We'll try to avoid that, then," Bledsoe said. "Anthros, I need a detailed list of materials. Something I can run up to the SecDef. If we see movement on those items, we may be able to track down the destination. Now, are you sure this thing is only useful for augment-building? Corvus is only one possible buyer. We might also be looking at the Paradise group or conventional terrorists."
"It's an augment brain-machine interface, you can't very well make a cappuccino with it," Will snarked. "And the Paradise group is Corvus. I don't know how this can be so difficult. She's in the final stages of a decapitation strike on Wolf Creek - the Paradise agent incapacitates, and her Millenium augments clean up."
Bledsoe sighed. "Just get me a damn parts list, Anthros."
"And you get protection for Jaime and her sister," Will demanded.
"That's what I'm trying to do," Bledsoe said. "But your girlfriend's running at 20% capability and her little sister thinks dodging her protection detail is a fun afternoon. The only way I can keep them safe under these circumstances is to bring them both in and lock them up."
Will sighed. "And that's not a good idea, for her or Berkut." There was a pause from his end of the call. "We should consider turning Jaime's controls back on. Only if we deem it absolutely necessary. But...Jaime's judgement is clouded on them. We shouldn't let her make a mistake this serious, if it comes to it."
"I agree," Pope said. "We can't beat augments with high-school wrestling and a taser. If we don't have Summers at a hundred percent, she'll go down hard."
"Let's not get ahead of ourselves, gentlemen," Bledsoe said. "So far, the only confirmed threat is Corvus herself. And the combat enhancements won't do Summers any good if the system melts down again. We need a stable system before we can put the controls back into play. Agreed?"
"I believe I already said that they should be activated only if absolutely necessary," Will replied.
"And when they're activated, they need to work," Bledsoe said. "I'll be waiting for that augment shopping list, Anthros. Thank you for your input."
There was another pause from Will. "Yes, whatever," he said, and then hung up.
"Paranoia and doom, just what I needed," Bledsoe said, pocketing his cell phone again.
"Doctor Anthros's worries are not entirely without merit," Pope said. "We're looking at three different investigations right now. How are we going to square this, Sir?"
"The Paradise group remains our highest priority," Bledsoe said. "I'll task our teams with that search. Sara Corvus and the stolen Millenium gear, however...I need this done low-profile. It's a job with your name on it, Pope. Can you handle both?"
"Yes, Sir," Pope said. "Seems to me that the supplies needed to build new augments are also needed for Corvus to maintain her own body. If we can get the scent, it might lead us down both paths - or show that it's the same, if the Doctor's fears are true. We've also still got a list of Corvus's old associates - family, friends, people she knew in the Corps. I'll make some discreet inquiries, see if she's made any contact with them."
"Good," Bledsoe said. "Keep me in the loop, Pope."
"Yes, Sir," Pope said. "But before we leave, sir, we should address Sandra. She was problematic, and I expect she won't let what happened today go."
Bledsoe nodded. "Then let's apply some leverage."
Again, the cell phone was produced from Bledsoe's pocket; Bledsoe felt a brief pang of emotion when he dialed Sandra Caulfield's number. Nostalgia's a bitch, he thought.
"Yes, Sir," Caulfield answered. "I hope you have some answers, Sir."
"I do, Sandra," Pope said. "Let's talk about this. I'm down at the holding cells. Please come and meet me there as soon as possible." Caulfield simply hung up.
Bledsoe looked back to Pope, who simply closed his eyes and shook his head softly.
Caulfield didn't even make it through the door at the other end of the row of holding cells before she saw Bledsoe standing with Pope - outside of his cell - and stopped dead. Bledsoe watched her opened her mouth and waited wearily for her inevitable moralizing, but then she just rubbed her temples with one hand while the other went straight to her hip. "Of course," she muttered, or something like it.
"Sandra," Bledsoe began with a smile, "thank you for coming. I'm sorry things got so out of hand today. That was not my intention. But I'm glad Gracia and her father are safe. That's what matters most right now."
"And not you springing your private boogeyman from my holding cell," Caulfield said as she cautiously approached the pair.
"We both know that I'd get him out one way or another," Bledsoe said, dismissing the thought with a wave of his hand. "The longer he is in your custody, the uglier the questions get. That's the kind of blowback neither of us needs." Sandra started to speak, but Bledsoe lifted his hand to signal that he wasn't done talking. "Look, Sandra, you know I'm good at smoothing out the narrative. Let me take care of this. You did a great job today. I'll make sure your superiors realize that. All I need is for you to say 'yes'." He gave her a hopeful look.
Caulfield thought for a second. "Are you going to let me question Diego Valdez?"
"No," Bledsoe said, shutting down that discussion quickly. "My people will question him. I'll give you everything that's not a national security issue, though."
Caulfield didn't flinch. "Will I have access to Jaime Baker and Antoine Ginsburg for questions and my report?"
"No," Bledsoe said, narrowing his eyes at the mention of Ginsburg. "And it was just Jaime Baker. Your report should reflect that."
"And will I have access to anything from that briefcase Pope seized from the crashed embassy Jag, or the canister Diego brought with him, or what Richard Earlmeyer's interest was in it?" Caulfield continued.
"I'll provide a cover story," Bledsoe replied. His arms were crossed in front of his chest, and he tapped the fingers of his right hand onto his left arm, already plotting out the pattern of the wool he'd pull over everyone's eyes. "There's too much we don't know right now, and interference from other agencies will only make it harder for us to track it down."
Caulfield nodded. "So, you want me to just...lie. Lie to my bosses, lie to my agents." She crossed her arms. "On a case that has national security implications, involves international smuggling and foreign diplomats, sensitive technology, and organized crime - basically, the definition of a case that is under my jurisdiction, not yours - if you even have a jurisdiction." Caulfield sighed. "I have a job to do, Sir. And that job does not involve covering up for you, not anymore. There's an obvious ongoing threat here - Earlmeyer, this tech, and whoever he was working for that's got him scared so bad to tear San Francisco apart to get it back - and I need to get to the bottom of it."
"We're getting to the bottom of it, Sandra," Bledsoe said, and softened his voice and stance. "I know you want to serve your country and protect lives - that's admirable." He nodded to that. "But this is being handled way above your paygrade. So I'm asking you nicely to get out of our way." He let that ultimatum hang in the air for a second. "Get out of our way, Sandra. Please."
Caulfield nodded. "I understand that you think you have to say that, Sir, but this is what I do. My agents know what they're doing, and we have the resources to get to the bottom of this. Help us figure this out, Sir."
Bledsoe shook his head. "That's not going to happen, Sandra," he said softly. He paused again and considered his options, and realized that it was time to be the bad guy and lay down the law. When he spoke up again, he tried to keep his voice even. "The Office of Professional Responsibility is about to launch a full-scale investigation into you."
Caulfield almost interrupted Bledsoe, but stopped cold once he mentioned OPR. "What? Why?" She narrowed her eyes. "Is that a threat? You can't get me to go along with your bullshit, so you're going to burn me?"
"Your account was used to access a lot of confidential files using extremely sophisticated cyberwarfare tools," Bledsoe said, looking Caulfield dead in the eyes. "That's not a threat, it's a fact. I have burned you. So now we're going to talk about what I need you to do in exchange for me saving your career. Do you understand me now?" He watched her closely, hoping for submission but preparing for aggression.
He saw both. Caulfield's shoulders tensed up as she balled her hands into fists and she fixed Bledsoe with a death glare. She didn't get beyond that before her rage collapsed under the weight of the realization that Bledsoe had successfully put her in a corner. She didn't fold entirely - her eyes kept the anger and shoulders stayed tensed - but her tone carried none of her anger. "Yes, I believe I do."
Bledsoe nodded. "Good," he said, covering his shitty feelings by keeping his tone terse and flat. "You'll hear from us. Don't make yourself into a problem again."
Caulfield shook her head sadly. "Of course." She gave Bledsoe a disappointed look. "What do you want me to do with my report for now? What lies should I tell my agents?"
Bledsoe crossed his arms right back and shifted from one foot to the other as he tried to think of a response under Caulfield's expression. "I don't give a damn," he finally snapped. "I taught you how to lie, Sandra. Handle it." Bledsoe took a deep breath and let it out slowly before continuing - but it didn't help much. "Pope will be in touch with the broad strokes tomorrow."
Caulfield simply turned on her heel and left. Bledsoe breathed out subconsciously as the door closed behind her.
Pope cleared his throat. "Do you want me to put a shadow on her, Sir?" he asked.
It took Bledsoe a few seconds to come up with an answer; when he did speak up, he didn't turn to face Pope. "Yes," he growled, and left it at that.
Upon arrival at the FBI offices in downtown San Francisco, Bledsoe had simply turned the SUV off and walked out, leaving Ginsburg and Jaime in the lurch. After a few minutes of waiting, Ginsburg silently climbed out of the back seat and took the driver's position, piloting them south towards Jaime's apartment. Jaime asked once if they were supposed to just leave Bledsoe behind, but Ginsburg just told her not to worry about it. That was the extent of the words uttered by Ginsburg the entire trip back to Jaime's apartment; even at her doorstep, Ginsburg simply put the car in park and stared straight ahead.
"Antoine?" Jaime asked as she leaned forward to give him a concerned look. "Are you all right?"
"I'm fine," Ginsburg said. A second later, he turned to face Jaime with a halfhearted smile. "I'm fine, Jaime."
"Are you sure?" Jaime replied. As the caretaker of a teenage girl, Jaime had a lot of experience with half-concealed emotions, and both of her eyes told her that Ginsburg was pretty far from fine.
Ginsburg met her look. "Go inside," he said. "I'll pick you up tomorrow at...nine?"
Jaime felt the urge to hug Ginsburg rise up quickly within her, and she went with it, leaning over and wrapping her arms around him with a quick squeeze. "Okay," she replied with a smile. "I'll see you tomorrow, Antoine."
Ginsburg didn't return the hug, but he didn't fight it, either, or move in response at all. "...see you tomorrow, then," he said, but Jaime had already shut the door behind her.
Jaime didn't hear what Ginsburg said, nor did he say anything other than a hasty "goodbye" when Jaime retrieved her gear bag from the back. Jaime chimed in with a farewell of her own, and before she reached her doorstep, the SUV was gone, leaving her standing before her front door, trying to figure out what possible excuse she could use for coming home so late. Her chance to do so was cut short when the door opened before her; Will stood behind it, greeting her with a weary smile.
"Jaime," he said. "I...um, I made dinner. Come in!"
Jaime quickly put on a smile of her own, and stepped inside carrying her black tactical bag containing her new expensive outfit, and her gun. She looked at Will as he continually glanced back over his shoulder at her, and once they were in the kitchen, Will did nothing but look Jaime over with worried and tired eyes, his concern overriding his promise of food.
"So...you made dinner?" Jaime asked with a smile as she took a seat at the kitchen table.
"Yes!" Will said, the corners of his mouth rising for just that moment. "I didn't have much to work with, but I managed to whip up some pasta alfredo. I just hope the noodles haven't dried out too much." As he explained, Will grabbed a saucepot from the kitchen counter and dragged it back onto the stove, cranking the dial to low heat. "How did the mission go?" he asked.
Jaime tried to figure out how to parse the last few hours; the words stress, chaos, noise, terror were all she could drag up, and when she thought about the desperate fight to save Gracia and the gun battle in the Fairmont Hotel ballroom, her stomach dropped out from underneath her. She groaned as the now-familiar adrenaline-induced nausea returned, and her hands gripped the edge of the table. Will turned around and rushed to her side. "Jaime!" he said. "Come on, let's get you sitting down somewhere."
Jaime managed a smirk through her nausea and back pain. "I am sitting down, silly."
"Yes, yes," Will said. "Um. Okay, you keep sitting down." His hands snapped to his hips as Will's head snapped around, casting about for something to help. "I'll - I'll get you a glass of water, that should be good for you - you're probably dehydrated - and..." He turned back to the kitchen counter, grabbed a glass and stuck it under the faucet as he started flipping through the cabinets. "Jaime, where do you keep your ginger? I swear I saw some ginger tea, that should help -" Will slammed the cabinet closest to him shut, "- dammit, where is the ginger -"
Jaime forced herself up off her chair and wrapped her arms around Will from behind, gently rubbing his chest. "It's okay," she whispered to him.
Will straightened up, inhaled deeply and then let his breath out slowly before he spoke again. "I'm sorry," he said. "I should have prepared better. Are you sure you're alright? I can call in and pull your telemetry on my laptop."
Jaime frowned, but tried to forced it back down before she let Will go. "No, that's...please, don't."
Will turned to face her; he hesitated for a moment, then reached out and put his hand on Jaime's arm. "Okay." He paused, and watched Jaime's eyes. "Was it the telemetry?"
Will put his other hand on Jaime's shoulder. "I'm sorry, Jaime. I forgot about your concerns about the bionics."
"It's not that - well, not just that," Jaime replied, and rubbed Will's sides in return. "I'm here, Will. Right here. You can just ask me how I'm doing, I'm not a robot on Mars or something like that, I'm a person."
"Ah! Yes," Will quickly replied with a nod. "I'm sorry, Jaime. I understand what you - I just meant -" He looked down for a moment, sucked in a deep breath and took another ten-second pause before he looked back up in her eyes with an apologetic look. "I love you, Jaime. I care about you deeply and I apologize. I just worry, and…I didn't see you - I mean, I saw you, obviously, but I didn't see...see Jaime." With that, he managed a bit of a smirk. "In my defense, telemetry is more precise than 'How are you?'. But your point is taken. How are you, Jaime?"
Jaime smirked in return. "A little achey, but I feel good."
"How is your lower back?" Will asked. "Is it still bothering you?"
"Today didn't do me any favors, but it feels fine," Jaime replied.
"Any malfunctions?" Will asked.
"Okay, I think that's enough, Dr. Anthros," Jaime said with a playful tone. "We'll have plenty of time to play doctor later, and I think we both know there's a more pressing matter at the moment."
"Ah, yes," Will said, looking over to Becca's room before his head swiveled back to face Jaime. "She has been cooped up in her room ever since she came back about two hours ago. For what it's worth, she did apologize to me when she came in, so maybe you should not be too harsh with her. She was safe the whole time."
"That's not the point, Will," Jaime replied. "She blew you off to..." She caught onto the meaning of what Will said a moment too late. "What do you mean, safe?"
"The protection detail," Will said. "Becca's bodyguards. It's only a precaution."
Jaime's eyes narrowed. "Berkut is following Becca around? All the time?"
"Jaime, you asked him to keep her safe," Will said. "Do you remember discussing that with Bledsoe?"
Jaime scoffed. "Like I'd ever ask Bledsoe to look after Becca. His idea of 'protection' would probably be throwing her in Guantanamo."
"Hrm," Will grunted, and gave Jaime a concerned look for a moment before his smile returned. "Well, never mind, then. Serves me right for believing his story about your deal, I suppose. However, much as I am not a fan of the man or his thugs, we do have to do something to protect Becca - and his oafish protection detail is better than nothing. Don't you agree?"
"...yes," Jaime said, and sighed. "But...they're only watching out for her. Right?"
Will nodded. "I hope the day never comes when Becca is in danger...but it's good to know that if it does, she won't be alone."
Jaime gave Will a questioning look. "And that's a little creepy, isn't it?"
Will gave his head a quick tilt to the side as his eyes wandered before coming back to Jaime. "I think we need to get used to creepy."
"I think there's way too much creepy as it is," Jaime countered. "I think we shouldn't have to live like prisoners."
"In a better world we wouldn't have to," Will said. "Do you think Sara Corvus, or the people who destroyed Paradise, or anyone else out there - do you think they won't try to come after us?" His voice lowered, and put his hands in Jaime's. "We're not safe right now, Jaime. I don't like that any more than you do, but that is a fact of our lives. We can either deny that, or we can work to change it."
"You're not the one with Bledsoe and his people watching what you're seeing and hearing what you're hearing - through your own eyes and ears, no less - all day, every day, Will," Jaime replied testily as her eyes narrowed. "You're not the one who has to to lie to their little sister about what's been done to them, that's being forced to play secret agent and put their life in danger." Jaime felt her blood start to boil over as she kept speaking, and Will went pale and still as her rant continued. "Jonas Bledsoe has already intruded enough on my life, into my family, and into my most private moments. I've already made it clear that what is happening is completely unacceptable, and I will not give an inch more to him - and that includes him spying on my little sister. Understood?"
"Okay! Okay!" Will yelped, and yanked his hands out of Jaime's. He shrank away from her a few steps, his hands held up. "Let's...let's calm down for a moment, okay?"
Jaime took a deep breath - or four. "Okay. You're right. You're not the one behind all that shit." She managed a smirk at her boyfriend. "Can you believe Bledsoe's trying to talk me back into turning on the controls soon?"
"Yes, um, I can," Will replied. "You're still just an asset to him, for the most part - and you're supposed to have those controls on. He's - he's used to soldiers that just follow orders. No one talks back to him like you do."
Jaime's smirk turned into a smile as she wrapped her arms around Will's waist. "Except you, of course."
"Well," Will said, "someone has to keep him on track." He returned Jaime's smile.
Jaime leaned in and kissed Will, and they shared a moment together before Jaime pulled back, smile still on her lips. "There's something else to deal with right now, though. You and Becca need to talk."
Will's cheeks had regained their color and then some, but the mention of Becca brought his blissful expression back to neutral. "Jaime, there's no need for discussion between Becca and myself," he protested.
"And I disagree on both counts," Jaime replied. "You don't control the goons following my little sister around, Bledsoe does. I'll take it up with him tomorrow - right before I go back to my vacation. But you two have a lot of apologizing to do, and that we can do something about now."
"Jaime..." Will began, but swallowed the rest of his words.
"Go wait in the living room, okay?" Jaime asked.
"Alright," Will said. Jaime smiled and gave Will a peck on the cheek. He smiled back, then turned around and slouched off to the old couch.
Down the hallway, Jaime mashed the button for the lights in Becca's room a couple times. No response - usually meant Becca's either asleep, busy or sulking. Jaime took a guess on which one it was, and opened the door to see Becca on her bed, typing away on her netbook, her back to the door. Jaime sighed and rounded the bed, waving her hands a bit to get her little sister's attention. Becca didn't seem to respond, so Jaime took the next step and waved her hand in between Becca's face and the screen - still no response. Now Jaime knew Becca was intentionally ignoring her, and as her blood boiled over momentarily, she simply snatched the netbook off of Becca's bed.
"Hey!" Becca shouted, and tried to roll off the bed to grab her netbook back.
Jaime ignored Becca as she quickly saved whatever it was Becca was working on and closed the lid. Only then did she hand Becca her computer back. It's saved, Jaime signed. You and Will need to talk. Now.
Becca went from angry to strangely quiet. "Look...I already apologized to him for leaving without him, and he said it was all right," she replied, slowly drawing a circle on her bedspread next to her with her finger. "We're cool, so...I want to go back to work."
Becca opened her netbook back up, but Jaime slapped it closed again. No, you're not, she signed furiously. Go to the living room, now.
Now, Jaime signed.
"...fine," Becca muttered, and reluctantly stood up.
Jaime followed Becca down the hall as she slowly shuffled down towards where Will was standing and waiting.
Will turned to her as Becca entered the room, but Becca froze rigid in place for a moment as he looked her way. "Um," he began, taken aback at Becca's reaction. "I think we have something to, ah, talk about, Rebecca." After a moment of waiting for inspiration, he picked up his train of thought again. "I believe I...I owe you an apology. We, uh, clearly we got off on the wrong foot, and I feel that I contributed to that with my behaviour. I just want you to know that I am sorry and will amend my behaviour." His eyes flicked to Jaime. "Good?"
Becca relaxed ever-so slightly and said nothing, standing close to her sister, but still kept her eyes on Will and Jaime's lips.
Jaime shook her head. "Will, do you know what I want you to apologize for?"
"...no," Will admitted. "You didn't specify."
Jaime looked to Becca. "Do you?"
Becca shook her head.
Jaime sighed. "Will, you've been talking about wanting to get to know Becca for weeks, but last night, when you had the chance, you blew her off for work, just like that." She looked to Becca, who kept her attention on her sister's lips. "And Becca, I trust you to go to Berkeley by yourself - but I asked you to at least try to make an effort to spend time with Will, but the first chance you get, you blew him off."
"It's not like he cared," Becca complained softly, glancing briefly in Will's direction. "He just let me go."
"Well, I can't just make her want to spend time with me, Jaime," Will lectured. "What is the point of -"
The confluence of complaints from her little sister and boyfriend almost pushed Jaime over the boiling point. Jaime balled her fists at her sides and took a deep breath before continuing. "Because I would like us to be a family," she said. "Because you are my little sister, and you are my boyfriend, and I love you both so very much, and it would be nice if we could spend time together as a family." She looked between Will and Becca. "I think that would be a pretty great thing for us to try, right?"
Will looked away from her, a dour expression on his face. His mouth moved, as if to mutter something, but in the end he stopped himself from making a sound. Becca, on the other hand, instantly softened, dropping her gaze to the floor and sticking her hands in her pockets. "...I'm sorry," she murmured. "I didn't know that was so important to you." Becca looked back up to her big sister, her eyes damp. "I'm...really sorry, I know that..." she sniffled and wrapped her arms around a surprised Jaime, "I know that you're having a hard time right now."
Jaime's heart couldn't withstand a direct hit from a crying Becca, and she gave her little sister a great big squeeze, which Becca returned twice over. "Thank you," Jaime said softly. She turned to the side and ruffled Becca's hair before looking back to her little sister. "Now, tell Will you're sorry."
Jaime felt Becca tense up, but after a second of suspicious sidelong glances, she looked Will in the eyes. "...I'm sorry, Will. I shouldn't have ditched you like that, it was...it was wrong."
"Yes, I'm -" Will mumbled before his train of thought jumped tracks. "Thank you, Rebecca. I accept your apology, and...I have plenty to apologize for myself. I've...I haven't given you the attention you deserve, and that's for more than just today. I resisted Jaime's attempts to put us together, and even when Jaime forced us to spend time together, I tried acting like your chaperone, not like someone who loves your sister and...who truly hopes to be a part of your family. Because the truth is - and I hope you can accept my evaluation - is that I think you are a brilliant young woman, and very fortunate to have a big sister who supports you and loves you as much as Jaime does. I think you can achieve great things, Rebecca, and I want to do what I can to help you. I know that I have a long way to go to meet your needs, but I would be very proud if I could one day become a part of your family - and hopefully, your mentor."
Becca barely reacted at first, but as Will continued, she slowly untensed and softened towards him. By the end, Becca wasn't exactly warm towards him, but she certainly didn't seem like she was trying to hide herself from him to Jaime. "Thanks, but...maybe we should get to know each other before I sign up for an apprenticeship," she said. Will's expression dropped, but Becca threw in a smirk. "I mean...maybe you're not that bad. Maybe."
Will returned the smirk. "I can accept that," he said. "And, Jaime, I'm sorry," he added, unable to maintain eye contact. "I'm, uh, I know I can be...difficult," he said, gesticulating with his right hand, "and you don't have to say I'm not, I know I am, I'm difficult. But..." Will finally manages to drag his eyes up to meet Jaime's, the remorse plain on his face. "I want this." He looked to her and Becca, letting his sweeping hand do the explaining. "This. You. Both of you. And I'm sorry that I didn't show that, that I didn't act right, that I ignored Becca and ignored what you wanted, and you're right. I want to be a family, I want to get better at this. I want to keep trying to be better." He sighed, and looked between Becca and Jaime. "Will you please give me another chance to try?"
A big grin broke out across Jaime's face, and even after the unease Becca'd been showing since walking in, Jaime saw her relent and smile a bit. "Of course, Will," Jaime replied. She reached forward to him, and Will tentatively put his hand in hers. "You didn't have to ask." She reeled him in - even though both Will and Becca initially pulled away - and gave him a peck on the cheek.
Will smiled. "So, um...in the spirit of being more of a family...what do you do when you have a day off tomorrow?"
"Make a big bowl of popcorn, watch TV, and maybe work on robots," Jaime replied. "But..." The unwelcome intrusion of Berkut into her thoughts made her frown. "I don't think I have tomorrow off. The day after, sure, but -"
"Maybe you do," Will said with a grin.
"Oh!" Jaime said, and returned Will's smile. "Then I think that sounds great."
"I'll go make the popcorn," Will said, and hurried eagerly off to prepare the snacks.
Jaime looked down at Becca. "Where's he off to? I couldn't see," Becca asked.
"He wants to spend tonight with us, watching TV on the sofa together," Jaime replied. "Is that all right?"
Becca looked off towards the kitchen. Jaime recognized her "deep thought" expression, complete with a moment spent chewing on her lower lip, which persisted for a few more seconds than Jaime would have thought. "I guess," Becca said.
Jaime gave Becca a squeeze. "Becca, please, just give him a chance."
Becca sighed, and thought for a few more seconds before she smiled up at Jaime. "Yeah, maybe I should. Okay, he can join us. But I am still ahead of him in the remote hierarchy. Agreed?"
"Agreed," Jaime said with an exaggerated nod. Becca giggled at that, and Jaime gave her another squeeze. "Thank you, little sis."
Becca returned the squeeze and leaned her head against Jaime for a moment. "You're welcome, big sis." After the brief tender moment, Becca looked back up to her sister as her smile turned mischievous. "But you know what? I'm getting the first show!"
Jaime's eyes went wide. "Oh, no you're not!" Becca squirted out from under Jaime's arms, but Jaime was right behind as the two sisters dove for the old sofa and wrestled around for the remote, squealing and giggling.
Will returned with a big bowl of microwaved popcorn to see Jaime and Becca taking turns sticking their tongues out at each other, and his weary sigh provoked an immediate laugh from Jaime, and even a delayed smirk from Becca. It only took a few minutes until the evening's primary activity turned from watching the show to talking over it. Will, not one for TV watching under most circumstances, was left confused about what was going on and agitated from the two sisters talking over the TV, but once Jaime explained that talking back to the TV is part of the fun (not to mention cuddled around Will that much more), he relaxed and got into it. By the end of the first show, he was even contributing in his own way - commenting on unrealistic events in the show and ads, which Becca was more than willing to volley back and forth with him on, much to Jaime's delight. By the end of the night, Becca begged off to go pass out, and Jaime seconded the motion, both sisters having had a big day. Becca stopped only to plug in her netbook before dropping off to sleep, and Jaime barely stayed awake long enough to change into her night clothes and climb into bed, falling asleep with her arm draped around Will's shoulders.
Becca woke up - as usual - with Jaime's hand pushing on her shoulder. Her big sis smiled down, and Becca smiled back even though she was still far from fully awake. As she trundled out after Jaime, she spotted Will walking out of the bathroom with just a towel for privacy. He saw her, blushed and squeaked out a quick "Good morning" before rushing off to Jaime's room for his clothes. Becca decided that it was definitely time for a shower - maybe it would rinse that mental image clean, too. Soon enough, everyone was clean - and dressed - for breakfast.
Becca was powering through her second helping of eggs when Jaime waved her hand to get her little sister's attention. Becca looked up. "What?" she mumbled through a mouthful of egg.
"I need to go downtown for a quick meeting," Jaime said. "A...colleague is picking me up at nine."
Becca's heart sank. She was hoping to spend today doting on Jaime - after what she learned yesterday about what Bledsoe had done to her sister, the least she could do is make Jaime feel like someone cared about her. Having the bastard that cyborg'd his sister up steal Jaime away the very next day just felt like salt in the wound. "Oh." Becca couldn't hide her frown. "I guess I'll see you tonight."
"Actually," Jaime said with a smile, "I'd like you to come with us. There's somebody I want you to meet."
"Oh!" Becca said, surprised at the invitation - but not half as surprised as Will looked. Heh. Wonder how many rules Jaime is breaking. "Sure, I'd love to go."
"Did - uh, did you call ahead?" Will asked.
"I'll take care of it on the way," Jaime said. "Do you want to meet us in Chinatown later?"
"Oh, of course," Will said. "We could get lunch there. In fact...let me treat you two. I know a place that is very well-reviewed."
"House of Nanking?" Becca asked.
Will deflated a bit. "Yes, that is the place."
Becca gasped. "Oh my god, that place is awesome. We are totally going there!"
"It's one of Becca's favorite restaurants," Jaime explained.
Will perked back up. "Good! Then I will meet you both there afterwards."
Becca eyed Will as Jaime leaned over and gave him a peck on the cheek. He may or may not be a crazed evil cyber-surgeon, but I gotta give him points for his taste in food. "I'll call when we're done, all right?"
Will smiled, but that smile faded a bit when his glance flashed down to Becca. "Just...be nice," he said.
Jaime smirked at Will. "Always," she said, and Becca mirrored her sister's smartassed smile.
Becca's first impression of Antoine Ginsburg was that he looked uncannily like the two goons who had chased her the day before. The clothes, the black SUV, the vaguely disapproving expression, it all fit together. He looks like he's not muscle from the neck up, though, Becca thought. Jaime walked on ahead and greeted him, but although he looked at Jaime and smiled when he returned the "Good morning!", his eyes kept flicking toward Becca. He probably knew all about her and yesterday, and she could feel him assessing her on the "threat or annoyance?" axis. After a few seconds of that, his expression softened and he afforded her a smile, too.
"You're Becca, right?" he asked. "Jaime's little sister?"
Becca nodded. "Who are you?" she asked.
"I'm Antoine," Ginsburg said, extending his hand. "Here to see your sister off, huh? Don't worry, she's in good hands with me. Twenty years of driving, not one accident, knock on wood."
"She's coming with us, Antoine," Jaime said with a smile. "I want her to meet Gracia."
Becca could see Antoine's brain skip a few CPU cycles as he tried to adjust to that particular nugget of news. "Uh, okay," he managed to say, then followed that up with a few more seconds of silence while looking straight at Jaime, as if he was waiting for her to flinch. When that didn't happen, he turned to Becca. "So, just to make this clear, you know that you can't tell your friends about this, yeah? We deal with sensitive clients, and I don't want to see them on your Facebook, okay?"
Becca gave a quick nod, but then remembered to be skeptical of all of this secrecy. "Why, you protecting an old Nazi or something?"
"...and that brings me to my next topic," Ginsburg replied as his eyes narrowed, "inappropriate conversation. This is no joke, Becca. If I can't be sure that you'll be on your best behaviour for the duration of the trip, you are not getting in this car. Sorry, but that's the way it is. So save the quips and jokes for later, okay?"
Becca raised her hands. "Okay, okay, sorry, jeez. No need to take my head off, just let me know what's cool, all right?" She looked up to Jaime, who had crossed her arms and fixed Ginsburg with a glare. "Jaime can vouch for me, you want me to act nice, I can act nice."
Jaime just nodded to that.
"Good," Ginsburg said. He actually waited for Becca to look back in his direction. Hm. Maybe he's not so bad. "Are you okay riding in the back, or do you need to sit up front?"
"Back is fine - I only need the booster seat in Jaime's car," Becca replied sarcastically.
That earned her another silent glare from Ginsburg, but then he turned around and held the door open for her. There was a laptop bag lying on the back seat, which Ginsburg duly removed before letting her climb in; otherwise, the interior of the SUV could best be described as "subdued", dominated by grey fabric and dark leather.
"What's in the laptop bag?" Becca asked as she climbed in.
"A laptop," Ginsburg replied, barely making eye contact with her.
She kicked a metal case underneath the rear bench with the heels of her sneakers. "And what's in here, a gun?" Becca asked in a teasing tone.
"A big one," Ginsburg replied, his eyes saying he was teasing her right back. "And some other stuff that doesn't like to be kicked, so keep your feet away from there, alright?"
"All right," Becca said, and settled back as Ginsburg turned to look at Jaime. Reading Ginsburg from the side wasn't exactly easy, but she made out "Bledsoe"; Jaime replied that she would get on that right now, which earned her an eyeroll from Ginsburg before he opened the driver's door and climbed into the car himself.
The secretive conversation between Jaime and Ginsburg reminded Becca of the two meatheads that were stalking after her yesterday, and watching Ginsburg climb in gave Becca an evil idea. Let's poke the bear, see what happens. And get some points from Jaime, while I'm at it. "Hey, Jaime...I need to tell you something."
Jaime turned around and gave Becca a curious look. "What?" she asked with a suspicious tone.
"Yesterday, when I was at Berkeley...I didn't tell you this, but I was followed by these two guys down Mission. And in the BART station. And to the library."
Becca could swear she saw Ginsburg's hands try to squeeze clean through the steering wheel as he struggled to keep a straight face. Jaime, on the other hand, seemed torn between shouting at Becca and shouting at Ginsburg. Point, Becca thought.
Jaime settled on turning to Becca. "And you didn't tell the police? Or come home? Or call me?"
"I did tell the police!" Becca protested. "Both on the BART and at the library! They came back after the BART, but didn't come back after the library. I thought it was no big deal, but -"
"No big deal?" Jaime hissed. "You could have been in real danger, Becca!"
"- but, then they went away and I didn't see them again," Becca continued. "But I just wanted you to know."
"Well, next time, you tell a policeman, and then you call me and you stay with him until I come and pick you up," Jaime scolded. "You don't just run off and keep going out there, alone, when you think you're being followed, you're smarter than that, Becca." She turned to Ginsburg. "Isn't that right?"
Ginsburg turned to look at Jaime, then a little further to face Becca. "...that's exactly right," he said. "We deal with a lot of force protection in our business. So, in my not so humble opinion - when you're alone and you don't feel safe, talking to a cop is absolutely the best move. Two people working together, following you over several stops - these guys could have been sharks smelling blood in the water. You need to take safety more seriously, Rebecca."
"Yeah, I understand," Becca said. "I'm sorry I didn't tell you, Jaime. Really." She meant every word, too.
"Just..." Jaime sighed. "Be more careful. Please." She suddenly looked very tired, and very scared - an expression Becca had seen far too much of recently.
Becca managed to smile back. "I will."
Ginsburg gave her a nod. "That's what I like to hear," he said. He then turned back to the front, twisting the key in the ignition to start the car's engine. Becca felt it roaring to life from the slight vibration in the chassis.
As the SUV pulled down their street, Ginsburg started saying something to Jaime, and try as she might, Becca couldn't get a good angle on either Jaime or Ginsburg's lips in the rear view mirror. All she picked up were a few scraps - "know you're frustrated" in particular got a harsh look from Jaime - and the rest was meaningless without context: "old man", "don't go too far", stuff like that. Becca guessed he meant something about Jaime acting out against Bledsoe, which made her smile. You go, big sis.
Jaime started talking, but Becca could tell she was intentionally looking away from her, and so she couldn't read anything she said. After a few seconds, Jaime pulled her cell phone out and held it up to her ear, but Becca could plainly see that it was just sitting on the home screen - Jaime wasn't talking to anyone on her phone. She craned her neck, and saw that Ginsburg wasn't speaking at all. Who is she talking to? And how? Becca made a note to ask Sara what this meant.
Whatever it was, the discussion heated up for a few moments before Jaime calmed back down, nodded a few times, and then pretended to hang up her call. She turned back to Ginsburg, and this time Becca could fully read her lips. "Bledsoe says it's all right if Becca meets Gracia," Jaime said.
Ginsburg nodded, but Becca still couldn't make out what he said.
"It'll be fine, Antoine," Jaime said, and gave him a smile. "You need to learn to relax and just take a chance every so often."
Ginsburg said something else, and shook his head.
"Then I'll just have to make you," Jaime replied, and turned back ahead as the SUV made its way through San Francisco morning traffic.
After a spectacularly awkward twenty-minute drive through downtown SF traffic, Ginsburg pulled up to one of those anonymous Financial District towers that deployed glass and steel only in the most unexciting way possible; Becca felt it sucking the life out of her just looking at it. But sticking with Jaime meant following her and Ginsburg inside, where twentysomethings with somber haircuts and badges clipped to the belts of their 200 dollar suits seemed to be covering all the angles. Becca got a look at one badge up close - FBI - just before Jaime walked up to them and flashed a different one. Whatever that was got them past the agents and into a hallway that was filled with another batch of federal agents, albeit ones with a few more years under their belts and better suits to show for it. In their middle stood a teenage girl, wearing a subdued dress that cost more than everything in Becca's closet put together. Seeing Jaime, she put on a smile and stepped forward to embrace Jaime, while Ginsburg stood to the side and seemed to be watching nothing in particular.
"I am so glad you could make it, Jaime!" the girl said. Becca had to pay attention a bit more to read her lips - judging by how she looked, where she was, and the pass around her neck that read "DIPLOMAT" in big black letters, Becca surmised she had an accent of some sort. "Sandra and my father are awaiting you inside. Oh, is that your sister?"
Jaime nodded, and her proud smile made Becca smile. "Gracia, this is Rebecca. She prefers Becca, though. I figured that you two could talk while your father and I figure out the last details to get you both home."
"Of course, that would be lovely!" the girl said, then smiled brightly at Becca and grasped her stunned hand for a shake. "Gracia Valdez," she said. "So nice to meet you."
"Becca Sommers," Becca replied. "And by the way, I'm deaf, so just be sure you look at me when you speak so I can read your lips. You don't have to speak slowly or anything."
Gracia smiled at that, but Becca still noticed the momentary pause everyone had when she told them she was deaf. "I'll try to keep that in mind," Gracia said. "Your sister speaks very highly of you. You two must love each other a lot."
"Yeah, we're pretty tight," Becca said as she felt her cheeks turn red.
Jaime hugged Becca from behind before walking around in front of her sister. "Aww, that's so sweet. I'll be right back, you two." She gave Becca a wink before turning around and walking off.
"So..." Becca started. "How did you meet Jaime?"
"Oh, just yesterday," Gracia said. "Everything turned out alright, thanks to her. Oh, pardon my manners, would you like something to drink? There's a vending machine around the corner and I need to get rid of my American bills anyway."
"Uh, sure, a diet Coke would be great, thanks," Becca said, her polite smile growing a touch more awkward.
Gracia motioned for Becca to follow her. As it turned out, the vending machine really was just around the corner, but that was enough for the two of them to break sightlines with the agents; Ginsburg didn't follow them either. Gracia fed a crisp bill into the machine and grabbed a Diet Coke, handing it over to Becca with a smile. She grabbed another one for herself, but didn't make much of an attempt to drink it; her smile softened a little, and she leaned in a little closer - not that being whispered to made much difference to Becca.
"How much did she tell you?" Gracia asked. "About yesterday."
Becca was surprised at Gracia's sudden use of the small moment to conceal information - and a little mad at herself for not thinking of it. "Nothing, she just had to 'go to the office,'" Becca replied, playing up both her cluelessness and suspicions. "Not that I get to know what that means."
"So you really don't know, then?" Gracia said, finally allowing herself a frown. "Becca, your sister and I were at the Fairmont yesterday." She let that sink in for a moment. "And she saved my life."
Becca didn't have to fake being stunned. "Wow. What happened?"
"My father," Gracia said. "He got in trouble with some very...I can't think of a better phrase than 'bad men'. They came to the reception at the hotel to try and kidnap me. But Jaime was there, and Mr. Ginsburg, and they protected me." Gracia shook her head. "We were trying to run away and these men were all over the hallways. Jaime fought them all, there were...it must have been a dozen men. It was like an action movie. I didn't know you could do that in real life, too."
Becca's heart leapt into her throat. "Was it...[b]how[/b] did she fight them?" She paused, afraid to ask the next question that popped to mind. "She didn't...kill any of them, did she?"
"Ah, no," Gracia said, quickly moving to reassure Becca. "Nothing like that. Just, you know" - she raised her right hand as a fist and mimed punching somebody - "but she did give me a shock gun and I had to use it. And I kicked one of them in the face with my heels. But they were all okay at the end, a few had to go to the hospital."
Becca smiled. "Okay, that does sound like Jaime." She looked over her shoulder. "We should probably hurry up and get back. Anything else you can tell me? I'm...trying to help her out."
"Help her out with what?" Gracia asked, either genuinely confused or making a damn good show of it.
"With...her whole situation," Becca said. "She's...having trouble with work. She doesn't want me to know, but I know, and I'm trying to help."
Gracia looked confused. "I do not understand what you are asking. What do you want to know?"
"Ah, anything weird or strange about her, Antoine, or anything else about her," Becca asked. "She's been behaving strangely. Because of all the stress, and I'm trying to find a way to let her know that I know. Just, anything weird you noticed."
"Weird, hm," Gracia said, not quite keeping her brow from furrowing. "The entire way we met was weird. Sandra - Agent Caulfield - was supposed to watch us, but then she called in this older man, and he brought in Jaime and made her pass herself off as a diplomatic security agent. And there was this other man snooping around, he showed up later at the hotel and shot some of the gangsters. Sandra had him arrested. And Jaime kept talking to this woman, Ruth, over the radio, but I didn't see any earpiece or anything. I'm...actually I didn't see the radio at all, there was no place to hide one in her dress. I don't want to concern you, but I am not certain this 'Ruth' is real, maybe she was imagining her." Gracia stopped for a moment to think. "I believe that is all. Is that enough? What do you think is wrong?"
"I'm just worried that the old man you saw is...making her do things she doesn't want to do," Becca replied.
"I don't know about that," Gracia said. "She didn't want to fight, and she didn't want to lie to me...but I think she did want to be there and protect me. I did not see the old man much. I'm sorry, I can't tell you any more about him."
Becca smiled. "You've done a lot, Gra...Gra-cia. Thanks." She extended her hand.
Gracia returned the smile and shook Becca's hand. "It is my pleasure," she said. "Now, we should go back before they send a rescue team."
"Yes," Becca replied with an enthusiastic nod.
They turned the corner just in time for Jaime to push a well-dressed man in a wheelchair out of the conference room. His arm was in a sling and his face showed some barely-healed bruises, and from the glance between him and Gracia, she guessed that this was her father. Becca smiled and waved to Jaime, who smiled back at her but kept her hands on the wheelchair handles.
"Gracia," the man said, and then everything turned into gibberish and stray phonemes as Becca struggled to read anything off him. She similarly missed Gracia's reply, admittedly mostly because she wasn't looking at her. Gracia stepped closer to Jaime and gave her a quick embrace while one of the suits pushed the wheelchair toward the exit; with a final wave to Becca, Gracia turned around and followed her father on the way out. Jaime followed behind, putting a hand around Becca's shoulder as they walked out together. Becca couldn't avoid noticing Jaime's concerned look as the man and Gracia got into an SUV with diplomatic plates and a Spanish flag sticker on the rear window.
"Is this what your work is usually like?" Becca asked.
"...something like that, yes," Jaime lied. "So, Chinatown?"
"Yes!" Becca said. "Let me just send a quick email while your friend gets the SUV."
"You are such an addict," Jaime said, adding a smirk to the mix. She took a few steps forward until she caught sight of the Ginsburg in the SUV, waving him over with her left hand.
Becca pulled out her phone and immediately started composing her email to a certain damaged-goods bionic spy.
Sara, learned a few more things that I need to know about.
1. Jaime is talking to people that aren't there. I think it's a radio in her ear.
2. Two new people: black soldier guy who's with Jaime, name is Antoine Ginsburg, and some other mysterious soldier that shot a lot of people at the Fairmont last night.
3. Jaime fought a bunch of bad guys at the Fairmont last night, but she doesn't really know how to fight.
4. She's hanging out with diplomats - this Spanish diplomat in particular, Valdez?
Get back to me as soon as you can, thanks.
Just as Becca pushed the button to send off her email, Jaime waved her hand to the side of Becca's vision. She smiled up at Jaime. "Okay, I'm ready to go."
"Are you going to drink that?" Jaime asked, pointing to the unopened bottle crammed in Becca's jacket pocket.
"Oh! Yeah!" Becca pulled the bottle out as she walked next to Jaime towards the SUV. "Gracia bought it for me. She seems pretty cool."
"Yeah, she is," Jaime said, and then leaned in closer. When she spoke, her lips moved but her throat didn't - this was just for Becca. "Just between you and me - your big sister helped to save her life."
Becca smiled and put an arm around her big sister's shoulder. The two of them came up to the SUV, where Ginsburg greeted Jaime with a nod from the driver's seat and started up the engine again while the Sommers sisters climbed inside.
"To Chinese food!" Becca called out from the back seat.
"Yes!" Jaime replied as she turned around in the seat so Becca could see. "Antoine, you should come in with us. Have you ever been to the House of Nanking?"
"Who's picking up the tab?" Ginsburg asked.
"Will," Jaime replied.
"Chinese food it is," Ginsburg said, flashed a left turn and then merged into the street traffic.
Hidden in the back aisles of the Manteca Goodwill, Sara held up a weather-beaten Carhartt jacket to her shoulders. Even before Anthros cut her open, Sara's broad shoulders guaranteed that "women's fit" jackets and coats felt more like straightjackets, which suited the practically-minded and fashion-oblivious Sara Corvus just fine. One of the best parts of Sara's active duty service was the easy obtaining of durable, practical clothes, something she had found hard to replicate in the civilian world. Security demands ruled out credit cards and Internet shopping, remanding her to scouring the Bay Area's many thrift and discount stores in between missions. Even bionic secret operatives needed new clothes every so often, and she had been striking out on replacing the jacket she wore during her fight with Jaime Sommers on that rooftop. However, this work jacket looked like it might do the trick.
As she walked up to the front of the store, Sara heard a chime from her pocket. One hand dug into her pants and retrieved her cell phone.
We're here with the delivery, where are you?
Sara peered through the tinted glass into the bright Central Valley midday heat, and spotted an unmarked van parking near the small cafe across the shopping center. Her thumb quickly tapped back a reply. Picking something up for myself. Be there in moments.
Her jacket paid for and bagged, Sara was blinded momentarily by the harsh light of the midday sun before the liquid-crystal "sunglasses" layer in her eyes darkened and cut the glare to a much more comfortable level. Her dark blue work shirt and black jeans blended in well with the farming city's standard attire, but certainly didn't help much in the triple-digit heat. Her back and arms instantly went slick with sweat - out of all the things Anthros' designs could have let her keep, the ability to sweat would not have been high on Sara's list, but she was thankful for it at that moment.
Sara's training subconsciously guided her into an oblique approach to the van, and when she rounded the rear corner to the driver's side, she easily noticed the driver bolt upright in surprise.
"If Berkut has people in this shithole, maybe we deserve to be caught," Sara remarked.
"What's in the bag?" the driver asked.
"Jacket, my leather one got torn," Sara replied. "You want to trade fashion tips, or make the handoff?"
"Actually, I'd like to hear about the change in plans," the driver said. "Twice the usual consumables plus over-spec EAP?"
"Not over-spec," Sara countered. "Millenium spec."
"Right," the driver replied as he climbed out of the van. "For your new friend."
"As for the rest, ask the boss," Sara said. "We're just here for the handoff, not a briefing."
"Speaking of which -" the driver tossed the keys to Sara, "- here's the van. Where's the shitbox?"
Sara lobbed the keys to the anonymous beater she took to the meeting to the driver. "Parked over by the Goodwill."
"See you in a month," the driver said, and walked off across the blazing hot parking lot.
Sara grabbed one of the bottles of soda from a cooler sat in the passenger side footwell as she looked into the back of the van: refrigerated coolers filled with gallon jugs of ichor, and at least fifty pounds of the new electroactive polymer muscle sealed in sterile bags, all badly needed back at the house. She blinked away the manifest list from her vision, started the van and trundled carefully towards the exit. As she did so, Sara reached behind her right ear, pulled away the smartskin plug over the USB port in the side of her head, and plugged in her phone. Sara's gut only gave a slight twitch as the connector clicked into place, followed by the beep in her ear to let her know the phone was paired.
As she pulled out into traffic, Sara dialed her boss' new number. After a few rings, the familiar scrambled voice answered. "Hello, Sara," it said, sounding like a buzzsaw. "Do you have the delivery?"
"Handoff went fine," Sara replied. "Heading back to the city now. Got an email from Rebecca Sommers, though, forwarded it to you."
"I saw that," the voice said. "She is getting a closer look at Berkut than I anticipated. And she's getting close to Anthros, too. Sending you unencrypted e-mail was careless, though. I don't think your speech about keeping a low profile had the right effect on her."
"We need to respond, though, or she'll get restless," Sara said.
"Give her a gold star for paying attention, then," the voice said. "Sharing further intel with her will just endanger her further. We need to keep playing our hand close to the vest here."
"She won't like that, just so you know," Sara replied. "She's smart, she'll know we're not giving her anything back."
"She's too immature to be read in," the voice said, "but if she's as smart as you think, Sara, then she will realize that she has no realistic alternatives to working with you and playing by our rules."
"What do you think we should do with her, then?" Sara asked.
"Right now we need to rein her in before Berkut realizes what she knows," the voice said. "Accelerate her development. She has to get better at covering her tracks, and she has to get better at it [b]quickly[/b]. Her school year has wrapped up and now that Berkut knows she's seen her shadows, they will step down surveillance. That should give us some room to bring her in for instruction."
"I think that we should think longer-term here too," Sara said. "I want to get her to the house and introduce her to Eric. She tore through the few bionics papers I gave her, I think she might be a good assistant to him after a few months. And it's a better place for training, anyway."
"Do you think she can handle Nicholas?" the voice asked.
"Considering how excited she got when I showed her my seams, I think she can handle it," Sara replied. "What about Jaime? What are we planning on doing for her?"
"Short-term, the best we can do is prepare," the voice said. "I've upped the shipment accordingly. We can't make a more definitive move until we find a way around Berkut's security."
"Which I could be doing instead of hanging out in the asshole of California," Sara pointed out.
"Absolutely not," the voice said. "We have had too many close calls already. We can't risk them recapturing you. Keep your distance until we have a plan for how to deal with them."
"Right, right," Sara said. "Anything else?"
"You need a new email account," the voice said. "Have Eric set one up. And have your first email be to Rebecca about security and encryption."
"Can do," Sara replied.
"I need to handle something," the voice said. "Call me when you have the shipment secured in the house. Goodbye, Sara."
"Talk to you later," Sara said, and hung up the call before resting her phone in a cupholder and adjusting her hair to cover the cable protruding from the side of her head better. She took another swig of soda and settled down for the drive back to the house, her mind occupied by how the hell to plan a tradecraft regimen for a teenager.
Richard Earlmeyer hadn't shaved in two days. He also hadn't slept in two days, but he could fix that one with a drive-thru coffee - the stubble, however, was really making him look like a fugitive, or so every glance in his rearview mirror seemed to tell him. He had done everything possible to stay off the radar, changing cars three times, clothes twice, wearing big aviator shades and keeping the hell away from traffic cameras, but he knew that in the game he had chosen to play, there was no running out the clock - he had to get out of the country, one way or another, and quickly. There was a private jet waiting for him at Mineta San Jose International Airport to take him far, far away from any jurisdiction even halfway sympathetic to the US, and there was only one final, small detail to take care of: he had to actually make the deal he had thrown away a decade of his life for.
The neglected North San Jose back alley didn't look all too different from where he had made his home, smack in the middle of an industrial park with zero foot traffic. Earlmeyer had been careful to park his car well away from the meeting spot; leaving millions in cash and valuables unguarded wasn't his idea of a fun time, but displeasing his employers was even lower on that list. All he had left to take with him was his gun and the canister, whose status LED had gone to yellow an hour before and caused him no end of worry. If that meant the deal was off...shit, Earlmeyer couldn't even conceive of exactly how screwed he would be. He prayed that he was still within the terms of the contract.
The representative of his employers was already there. He wore a finely-tailored suit, sunglasses and an utterly frozen facial expression. As if to counterbalance that slightly, there was a folding table set up next to him, with a briefcase and a few bottles of water on it. Earlmeyer stepped closed to greet him, but the representative merely held out a cellphone with his gloved right hand. Earlmeyer was still looking at it when it rang; he took the phone, then a breath, then the call.
"Earlmeyer," he said. "I have the package."
"Excellent work, Richard," came a buzzsaw voice from the other end. "Your bearer bonds are inside the briefcase. Please hand the package over to our man and authenticate your reward."
"Um," Earlmeyer said, "is that...all?"
"Do you have anything else to say?" the voice asked.
"I'm very sorry about the mess, Sir," Earlmeyer pleaded. "I misjudged my courier, but I did everything in my power to retrieve the package intact."
"And that's all that matters," the voice said. "You went to a lot of trouble to keep your word, Richard. I appreciate that. Now, please, count the money. We have to be sure that you're satisfied, too."
Earlmeyer felt something like relief, finally; after everything that had happened, he didn't expect his employers to be so...reasonable. With some of his worries gone, he handed the canister over to the silent man in the suit, who took it and quickly plugged some other gizmo into it; within seconds, the status LED went back to green. Earlmeyer let out his breath and walked over to the table, where he set down the phone, spun the briefcase around and opened it up. Staring up at him were a cool 10 million dollars in bearer bonds; Earlmeyer quickly leafed through the stack, watching for signs of forgery as he went, but finally he got to the bottom and realized that this was real, and that the biggest deal of his life was finally over and done with. With a faint smile on his lips, he closed the briefcase, hefted it off the table and picked up the cellphone again.
"Yeah, it's all there," he said. "Can I just say that it's been a pleasure doing business with you, Sir."
"I feel the same way, Richard," the voice said. "I just have one more question for you."
"Uh," Earlmeyer stammered, "yeah?"
"Do you taste garlic?"
Earlmeyer spun around just in time for the man in the suit to empty a small aerosol canister in his face. Earlmeyer stumbled back, dropping both cellphone and briefcase in a mad scramble to reach his gun. The taste of garlic did indeed flood his mouth, but the more immediate concern was the burning and itching sensation all over his face. Moments later, his vision went blurry, and his left hand went up to his face in shock, but only felt a wet glop where his eye should be. That was when Earlmeyer started to panic, but as his other hand drew his gun, the well-dressed man deftly disarmed him and took a step back. Both hands now went to his face as his vision went completely black, but all he felt was wetness and mass, just before his hands started to tingle and burn as well.
The buzzsaw voice rang in his ears as Earlmeyer's panic and terror dropped him to his knees. "Can you hear me, Richard? I suppose you probably can, but you might find replying difficult at this point."
"He still has his jaw," the man in the suit remarked.
"Well then. You are undergoing rapid and traumatic depolymerization of the actin molecules of all the cells in your body," the voice continued. "Basically, you are dissolving at a biochemical level."
Earlmeyer tried to scream, but his jaw simply didn't respond as his whole head felt numb.
"Actin is what supports your cells and keeps them rigid; without it, your cells will collapse and you will dissolve into a puddle of proteins, fats, water and bone. Fortunately, it should also destroy your nerves as it goes, so it should be a relatively painless, if very messy, death."
Earlmeyer slumped against a dumpster next to him and stopped responding, as blood poured forth from perforated arteries in his head and neck.
"I think he's unconscious," the man in the suit said.
"Oh well," the voice said. "Deactivate the nanotech and sterilize the scene."
"Can do," the man in the suit replied, and disconnected the call. A small hand-held black light was pulled out of his jacket pocket, and the table, the briefcase, and especially the bearer bonds within were carefully illuminated with the black light as Earlmeyer slowly dissolved into a puddle of reddish beige goo with bits of bone and fabric mixed in on the ground. Once the other items were clean and folded up, the man carefully swept the lump of biological goo and clothes that used to be Richard Earlmeyer with the black light several times, then opened both bottles of water - both of which contained a strong bleach solution rather than anything potable - and poured them over the 'corpse', carefully stirring the bleach into the goo. The scene now sufficiently sterilized, the man picked up the table and his payment of ten million in bearer bonds, and walked away.
Becca woke with her alarm and the sun - which at that time in the summer, meant somewhere around six o'clock in the morning. Sliding on her pyjama pants, she crept down the hall and into the kitchen, one very specific mission on her mind. All Becca could think about the last two nights was what Sara had said about what had been done to Jaime, and what that meant for the dozens of little expressions of fear on Jaime's face when she talked about her job, the late nights, and the unexplained injuries. She imagined her sister terrified, alone in some nightmare she couldn't escape, and it drove Becca crazy that she could do nothing to help without putting both herself and Jaime in danger.
But last night, she remembered one thing she could do to show Jaime she was there for her, one action that carried all the meanings Becca wanted Jaime to hear. And so, she was up with the morning sun, counting eggs and laying out strips of bacon to make the best damn breakfast she could for her big sister. Her preparations complete for now, Becca carefully stepped down the hall to check on Jaime.
She peered through the crack in the door to Jaime's room - that crack proof enough that Will had gone home the night before. She saw Jaime curled up on her side in the bed, and carefully stepped inside, rounding to Jaime's back - where Becca saw something that made her gasp. The first bruise her eyes locked onto was an angry red line straight across Jaime's back, radiating an aura of blue and yellow at its fringes and only interrupted by the strap of her bra. Smaller red stripes ran over her left arm, and the side of her torso wore marks close to her last pair of ribs.
Becca teared up as she gingerly reached for Jaime's bruises, and out of an abundance of need to hug her big sister, laid down on the bed behind Jaime and wrapped her arms around her. Jaime squirmed a bit in response, trying not to wake up completely, but it was a futile effort. Becca felt Jaime squirm to turn around, and she loosened her hug until Jaime was on her other side, facing her little sister. Her left arm reached out and wrapped around Becca's shoulders, and the younger Sommers sister laid her head on Jaime's shoulder as Jaime completed her return hug. Jaime gave Becca a squeeze in return as Becca held on tight.
"Hey," Becca said.
"Hey yourself," Jaime whispered back as she felt Becca press a damp cheek into her shoulder. Becca simply felt the vibrations of her big sister talking and leaned back just enough to see Jaime's lips. "What's the matter?"
"I just...I saw your bruises, and you looked like you needed a hug," Becca replied.
Jaime gave Becca another squeeze, which Becca gladly returned. After a few more moments of hugging, Jaime let her go and rolled upright to sit cross-legged on her bed. Jaime gave Becca a smile as she stood up. "Thanks, Becca." Jaime raised her eyebrows at Becca. "Seriously, what are you really doing in here, though?"
Becca's eyebrows shot up for a moment, as her train of thought skipped tracks back to its original path. "Ah! I'm making breakfast," she said.
That got an eyebrow raise from Jaime. "...why?"
"Well...because you've looked like you've needed a hug for a while," Becca said nervously. "So, put some pants on and come and get your overcooked eggs." Her nervous demeanor allowed for a smirk at her own joke.
Jaime slowly nodded. "All right." Her continued deployment of her "curious eyebrow" let Becca know that Jaime could tell that Becca had some big discussion on her mind, and that she wanted to hear it sooner rather than later.
"Well, I should get going - er, started," Becca said. "How many eggs?"
"Two, thanks," Jaime answered.
"Okay! Two eggs, coming up," Becca said, and hustled out of Jaime's room.
Becca had, in point of fact, made breakfast more than once in the last three years, so she ably got the scrambled eggs and bacon going, and even started a few slices of toast. By the time Jaime reappeared in her doorway wearing a dirty t-shirt and pair of pants, Becca was munching on a strip of bacon and gave her big sister a warm smile.
"Good morning," Becca chirped. She put on her biggest, best smile for Jaime.
"Good morning yourself," Jaime replied with a yawn, and ran her fingers through her hair as she sat down at the kitchen counter.
"So! I made you your two eggs, with some of the bacon that I didn't burn, and some sourdough toast," Becca said, still keeping the chipper tone in her voice and trying to make Jaime feel as comfortable as possible. "And I got the hot sauce right here for your eggs. I didn't know if you want juice or milk, so...do you want juice or milk?"
"Juice, please," Jaime said.
When Becca turned back around from getting the orange juice from the fridge, she saw Jaime giving her an inquisitive look. "Everything all right? You want anything else?" Becca asked earnestly.
Becca fidgeted under the counter as Jaime slowly took a sip of her juice. "Not that I don't appreciate the hospitality," Jaime said, "but...what's really going on, Becca?"
"I just - I mean..." Becca sighed. "You remember when I first made you breakfast?"
No one but Becca could have seen the shift in Jaime's expression at that. "Yes, I do - oh." Jaime's hand dropped her fork as she started to tear up. "Oh."
Becca couldn't keep herself from tearing up, either. "You've just seemed so sad, and afraid, and alone since you started working for Jonas Bledsoe, and I know that I don't know everything, but I know you, Jaime, and I know that you feel afraid and alone, and I just wanted you to know that I'm here for you, I'm always here for you, and even if you can't say what's really going on, you should know that I will always fight for you and if you need anything, any help or anything at all, I will do whatever it takes to help, even if you can't ask for it." Becca wiped her eyes. "Okay?"
Jaime tried to speak, then tried to speak again, and then gave up trying to find her words. Oh, Becca! was all that came to mind. She stood right up and walked around the counter, tears rolling down her cheeks before she gave her little sister the absolute biggest hug she could possibly muster, resting her head against Becca's as she squeezed her as tight as she could. Becca returned the hug. We're gonna make it, Jaime thought. We'll get through this. I don't know how, but there is a way and I will find it.
"I love you," Jaime said, barely able to raise her voice above a whisper in the moment.
Becca couldn't see Jaime's lips anyway, but she felt her voice vibrate through her chest and knew what she had said regardless. "I love you too," Becca replied. I'm coming for you, Jaime. I don't care what I have to do, I'm going to save you.