Disclaimer: I don't own any part of Fringe and Chuck, their universes, characters and general coolness. I'm not making any profit from this, so please, don't sue me.
Author's Note: I'm writing this fic assuming you know Fringe and Chuck and you have watched the first one of Fringe and the entire second season of Chuck at least. As a basic chronology, I'll say that the story is set between episodes 1X14 ("Ability") and 1X15 ("Inner Child") of Fringe and around, in the middle of episode 2X15 ("Chuck Vs. the Beefcake") of Chuck (at least in the first chapters.)
Yes, I'm very aware I would benefit from the help of a beta reader. What can I say, I have no friends. Feedback is much appreciated.
Olivia rubbed the soft flesh of her wrist with her thumb. The usually visible veins disappeared under the pressure to reappear a hundredth of a second later.
She wondered if the Cortexiphan ran through them once. That would explain many things. And open new questions. Had she been a guinea pig? And if she had, how much of her personality did she owe to the tests? Were her mental abilities —the ones David Robert Jones talked about— part of it? Did she really switch off those lights on the panel?
She did tell Peter that she thought it was all planned by Jones, that it was a mind trick, but a deep part of her, ingrained in her soul, gnawed at her fears. Even the always skeptical Peter believed it to be true. Peter, who had stayed at her side when a bomb was about to explode and there was no rational way to defuse it. Peter, whose haunted eyes after the lights turned off she couldn't forget. As if she needed more things to prevent her from sleeping.
She sighed. It caught Charlie's attention on the table next to hers. He didn't say anything, just sent her a reassuring stare and a small smile. She appreciated it. They weren't talky by nature, and they never needed many words between them to understand each other. She realized, however, that she hadn't talked in more than two hours and she opened her mouth just to ask him how he was doing with his paperwork.
The willowy form of Broyles on the office's entrance cut her try.
He did a gesture with his index and middle fingers for her to come. He seemed somber. But of course, he always seemed so. He had the strange quality of turning every place he was in the waiting room of an Oncology office.
"The chief calls us," Olivia told Charlie.
He glanced backwards, then at the papers on his desk. "You go, I have to finish this."
"Yeah. I'm sure you won't miss me."
"You just want me to be the first to see the pictures of this case, so if they're too shocking you can avoid them."
He smirked. "Photos of kids lying down on their own brain pudding isn't something that will suit my stomach after breakfast."
"I'm your superior, a little of respect," he said, feigning offense.
She cracked an impish smile and left before he could pull rank on her again.
Broyles was in his usual spot in his office, facing the big window that gave onto his subordinates, like an ibis. When she entered he didn't move.
"Did you want to see me, sir?" she asked to crash the silence.
"Yes, but first of all..." He studied her with attention. "Are you OK?"
"After what happened with Jones... I wanted to make sure you weren't haunted by him."
She almost smiled for his care. "Don't worry, sir. I'm fine and ready for the work."
He nodded, just once. Then he walked towards his desk, opened a file and placed it on the table so she could see the content.
Pictures of what looked like several body bags, half buried on the soil.
"A common grave?" she asked.
"Possibly. A man found them two days ago while he was running at the outskirts of L.A. Apparently one of the corpses had been exhumed. His bag opened."
"Do we suspect retaliation from a gang?"
Broyle's stare told her that she wouldn't be there if it was so simple. "How did they exactly die?"
"We don't know. There are no traces of wounds or any kind of violence inflicted to their bodies."
"No traces. And," he stressed his words pointing at the pictures with his index finger, "all their organs are in perfect shape. Healthy. They simply... Stopped."
"I'll ask for the bodies to be sent to Walter's laboratory."
"No need, I already ordered it. They'll be there as soon as possible."
Olivia nodded. "Then I'll get to work and gather more information about the victims."
Broyles extended his hand toward her. "Olivia, there is something more."
She tensed and felt her stomach clench. She shut up and waited.
"Among the corpses we've identified a CIA agent. On sick leave."
She relaxed, that wasn't anything she feared.
Broyles took out one picture from the pile of photographs and showed it to her. A close caption of a man's face. Middle aged, with light, short hair combed sideways. Even if he was pale and he had been dead for more than a couple of days, she could sense he had been a rosy-cheeked person. Probably given to smiling.
"His name was Bradley White," Broyles informed. "It was his bag the one that was open. He was born and raised in Boston."
"What was he doing in L.A.? What does the CIA say?"
"Nothing. We've asked them, but we haven't received any answer yet."
Olivia snorted. "Typical. Do we know what was his original post, at least?"
"A low CIA analyst, nobody important."
"That we know."
Broyles cracked a sour grin. "That we know."
Olivia took the picture in her hands. "I'll take Peter and talk with his family, see what they can tell me."
Bradley White's family consisted of his mom, Emily, a widow who lived in a peaceful suburb, in a cream colored house. She was a petite old lady with purple hair that offered them tea just after Olivia identified herself as FBI and before she could say anything else. Peter accepted for the both of them.
"Milk?" Emily asked, bringing a creamer closer to Olivia's cup.
"No, thank you." Olivia tried to focus. "Mrs. White-"
"And you, young man?"
Peter smiled as he was wandering around the living room. "Yes, please."
Olivia tried again. "Mrs. White, we're here because we wanted to talk about... Your son, Bradley."
Emily left the creamer on the table and looked at Olivia with shining eyes. "Did you find his corpse?"
"Excuse me?" Olivia managed to say.
"His corpse... That's why you're here, aren't you?"
"You knew he was dead?" Broyles didn't tell her anything about that.
"Yes, the CIA sent me a letter."
Olivia looked at Peter out of the corner of her eye. He glanced back from his post, next to the vitrine with porcelain figurines.
"The CIA?" Olivia tried to focus. "Won't you have that letter, by any chance?"
"Yes, yes." She reached for her apron with shaking hands. "I took it when I was preparing the tea. Because you were of the FBI and I thought..." Her voice faded. "I shouldn't have talked about it, should I? Brad used to tell me that I couldn't keep a secret..."
Olivia sent her what she expected was a comforting smile when she took the sheet of paper. "It's all right."
It wasn't from the CIA exactly, but from the DNI's office. They were nice enough to personally inform her about the dead of Bradley in an "unfortunate accident" one week before his corpse was found, according to the date. She could feel Peter behind her, looking over her shoulder. She could even sense him frown.
Olivia folded the letter again, carefully. "Did you receive it by mail?"
"Oh, no, an agent handed it to me." Emily caressed the piece of paper that Olivia gave back as if it was a wounded bird. "He was very nice."
"Did you know him?"
"No, I never saw him before. Not that I know much about Brad's work, of course." Her mouth contracted in a restrained grimace and she blinked away tears.
"His work was important. I'm sure he didn't want to worry you," Peter said and cracked a soft smile that soothed her immediately.
That's why Olivia had brought Peter and not Charlie, because Peter had a special knack to be likeable to women, even the old ones.
He sat down next to Emily, holding a silver framed picture of Bradley and her. As Olivia had guessed, Bradley had been a smiling rosy-cheeked man. He needed to loose some weight or buy new clothes, if his bulging belly over the belt, accentuated by the tight polo shirt, was any indication.
"He seems like a nice guy," Peter said.
"Oh, yes. He has-" Emily gulped. "Had a very big heart, he always wanted to help others. Since he was a little boy." Emily lowered her gaze and bit her lower lip. After an entire minute, she looked at Olivia, determination in her light eyes. "Did you find him?"
Whatever had happened and whoever was involved in it, there was no need to hide that information. "Yes, we had."
"Can I see him?"
Olivia hesitated. "No, for now. We need to determine the cause of dead." She hoped this wasn't going to be another case where the body was put in quarantine, teared to pieces or beheaded because Walter wanted to perform one of his experiments. Better to change of subject. "Mrs. White, what is the last thing you knew from your son?"
"That he was in L.A., working." She looked upwards, as if she was making memory. "He was living in some housing development called... Meadow's Branch, I think."
"Was he living alone?"
"As far as I know, yes."
"Did he mention any strange thing? Anything that was worrying him?"
She shook her head. "No... But why do you ask? I thought it was an accident."
"Routine," Olivia lied. "We just want to make sure."
The disquieting feeling of remorse didn't leave Olivia for the rest of the interview and when she and Peter said goodbye to Emily, Olivia had to make a conscious effort to hold her gaze.
Keeping secrets was part of her job and she had dealt with it. She had done it for a long time, sometimes in her professional life, sometimes in the personal one. The problem was that since she entered into the Fringe division, the more she kept secrets from others, the more she disclosed secrets in herself. Secrets that she didn't like and that she speculated would be better to leave untouched.
After she and Peter had left Mrs. White's house and they got into the car, she was quiet for a long time, without starting the engine. Peter didn't break the silence. He just stared at her, as one contemplates a sparrow pecking a few steps ahead and doesn't want to frighten it.
Olivia fidgeted. Charlie's silences soothed her, Peter's made her feel like looking at herself in the mirror to see if she had grown a second head.
"The CIA is definitively involved," she murmured.
"The letter could be false."
"No. I'm convinced it's legitimate." She smiled a humorless smile. "At least the origin."
"The Director of National Intelligence." Peter shook his head, rather incredulously. "Wouldn't Broyles have been informed about this? You said he asked the CIA."
"There is still lack of communication among agencies in certain areas. Too many people playing the Lone Ranger for too long, I guess. The reason why we identified Bradley White was because he was in our database, he worked as a consultant for some time." Olivia watched a flock of birds flutter around in the sky. "And there are others that have been identified but we don't know if they worked for the CIA. Everything is too cloudy and I'm not sure if I know where to look first."
A light-bulb turned on inside Olivia's head. She stretched towards the back seat and took out the file that was in her bag. "Let me search for something..."
"I'm not stopping you." Peter stared at her in silence as she made her way through the papers. "What are you looking for?" he asked at last.
"Mrs. White said that her son's last residence was at Meadow's Branch, a suburban cul-de-sac. I want to check if... yes, the victims that have been identified had the same last residence."
"They lived in the same place? All of them?"
Olivia checked the last names on the list. "Yep."
"And all of them are dead?" His voice's tone was tinged with apprehension.
"That's what it seems."
"What is it, built on an Indian burial ground?"
"I don't know. I haven't checked anything about it yet."
"Well, after what happened it probably crashed."
Olivia dialled to speak.
"And now?" Peter asked.
Olivia lifted her index finger to silence him.
"Homeland Security," a female voice on the other side of the phone answered.
"Yes, hello, this is agent Dunham, 71862276. I would like to find the names of all the people that have lived in a suburban area called Meadow's Branch, in Los Angeles city."
"Wait a moment, please."
Olivia drummed her fingers against the wheel as she heard the woman key her computer. She had time to play a cover version of White Room by Cream. Walter would be proud of her.
"I found the information. Do you want me to send it to your mail?"
"It's done. Something more?"
"No, thank you. Have a good day."
"You too, agent."
Olivia hung up, which Peter used to open his mouth. "Do you think you will be able to identify the victims faster with that list?"
"And maybe find some survivor." She opened the mail she had received and scrolled down through the list. "Hmmm... This is interesting. Mrs. White told us her son was alone, but he's listed here with his wife."
"Mrs. White won't be happy to hear that her son didn't invite her to the wedding."
Olivia sent him a "that's not funny" glare in between her reading. "Oh, wait. Somebody's here... Philip Yeager."
"Why is he special?"
"There is a note that says he left two weeks before the rest of them disappeared. Weird." She dialed again. "Charlie."
"Hey, Liv. Everything's OK?"
"Yes, I want you to check something."
"Find me information about Philip Yeager, last residence known Meadow's Branch, L.A."
"Let's see. Philip Yeager... Philip Yeager... Here. Philip Yeager, age 39, born in Denver."
"Is he alive?"
"As far as this goes, yes... Oh, crap."
"Alive, but if you wanted to ask him something, forget it."
"He's in a mental institution. The Grayson Psychiatric Hospital."
Olivia fell into complete silence. She even stopped breathing.
"What hospital did you say?" she managed to ask.
"The Grayson Psychiatric Hospital."
"Yes." Charlie's answer had been slow and soft, as if he wasn't sure how it was going to be received.
"OK, thanks, Charlie." She hung up without waiting for his reply.
Olivia kept very still, trying to ease the sudden tightness in her stomach. She knew that place, one of his instructors told her about it once, almost like parents tell children about the sandman.
"I get from your silence that what he just told you are bad news," Peter guessed.
She exhaled very slowly. "Yeager is alive. Unfortunately for us, he's in the Grayson Psychiatric Hospital."
Peter arched a brow. "In an asylum. Like Walter."
"Yes, but what it makes it worse is that the Grayson Psychiatric Hospital is a CIA psychiatric facility for agents who have... cracked under the stress of their jobs."
"You're kid-" A smile was wagering in Peter's lips but it soon disappeared under her severe stare. "You're not kidding."
Olivia grabbed the wheel with both hands so tightly that her knuckles went white. More than usual.
"So, let's see..." Peter said in the characteristic high pitch he got when there was some puzzle that he couldn't figure out and he was getting frustrated. "We have ten corpses, among them a CIA agent -although after all this I suspect the others won't be simple civilians- all of them living in the same suburban area, and now you're telling me that one of the survivors is shut away in a CIA psychiatric facility." He waited for her confirmation. He waited in vain. His face hardened. "What do we do now? Do we ask the CIA again? Try to get some information from them."
Olivia cracked an acid smile. "They won't answer us. First, because they're the CIA and they think the world is their playground. An second, because the clues lead us to think that they were operating on American soil, something that is forbidden for them. I don't think they'll admit it."
"So, we're screwed."
"Mostly so." Olivia clenched he teeth as a new determination born on her. "But not everything is lost yet."
"No. We have the corpses." She looked at him and smirked. "And we have Walter."
"There is a curious fact," Walter said turning the licorice candy in his hand.
"What is it?"
"Red licorice is made of strawberries or cherries and had little or nothing to do with actual licorice. For us Americans this is the normal color, but any European would tell you that black licorice is the real one. And they would be right. In fact, black licorice is redundant, because that's how the real licorice candy looks."
"Fascinating," Peter said, deadpan. "Now, can you tell us anything related to the corpse in front of us?"
Walter looked at the body laid down on the autopsy table as if he saw it for the first time. "Oh! Oh... yes... of course." He cracked an apologetic smile. "Our friend here suffered a cardiac arrest due to unknown reasons that led him to death. Even if there was a chance that it was caused by a high blood pressure -cholesterol seems to had been a friend of him- that doesn't explain the death of the rest, for the same reasons. There are no congenital illnesses or malformations in the hearts of any of them. Their hearts simply stopped. In fact, all the activity in their bodies seems to have stopped in the same moment."
"Without an external cause?" Peter asked.
"None that I found. So, the logical next step was examining the brain."
Walter gave the half chewed licorice to Astrid. She took it with a clear face of apprehension. Walter put himself next to the victim's head. He turned the body's neck carefully and showed the brain, exposed without the back part of the skull. Olivia wondered what story they would invent to tell Mrs. White.
"This, ladies and gentlemen, is a burn out brain," Walter announced in a very theatrical way.
Peter leaned out to take a better look at it. "I don't see any sign at first sight."
"Of course not, it is at neuronal level. The synapses suffered a temporary overflow of nerve impulses. Something saturated the brain connections, stopping all the neuronal work at once and hence, stopping all the organs because no orders were coming from the brain."
"What did?" Peter asked
"I postulate that this was caused by the reception of a tremendous amount of visual information." Walter turned the victim's head again and opened one of his eyes. "Theory supported by the lesions in his retinas."
Olivia stared at the victim, then at Walter. "I'm not sure if I understand."
"You see, even if the mind has a plastic quality, it has a limit. There is a..." He gestured with his hands as if he was holding a box. "A certain amount of information that it could maintain. That's why we forget. Some memories are washed away so new memories can be stored. There are cases where a person can stretch his mental abilities, or even have a flawless memory, but he must train or suffer some condition. Otherwise, the results can be..." He pointed at the body. "Unfortunate."
Olivia needed a couple of seconds to absorb his words. "Walter, are you telling me that his brain collapsed because of an excess of information?"
He flashed an impish smile. "He died because he knew too much."
Peter groaned and hid his face behind his hand.
"But who would want to kill someone like this?" Olivia asked.
"It would be quite undetectable," Peter reasoned.
"Not if you leave ten corpses in a common grave. Especially CIA agents."
Peter seemed to be about to say something, but then he closed his mouth and just nodded.
"Why must it be a murder?" Astrid asked with her usual shy delivery. "Maybe somebody was trying to introduce all this information in their heads, but it was too much and they died?"
"Oh!" Walter exclaimed.
The other three gawked at him.
He shrugged like an embarrassed child. "Well... there was... there was a government project very similar to this. The idea was to create a device that could get information into the spies' mind through encoded images, so they could even have the entire database of the agency."
"Agents that could recognize any other agent or bad guy without having to resort to computers or archives, only to what it was in their minds," Peter deduced.
"But more than that. The brain is the most sophisticated computer of Nature, its power consists of connecting data. So an agent wouldn't only recognize a person from a criminal organization, he could relate it with blueprints of a bomb and reports about a plan to assassinate a high ranking officer."
Peter crossed and uncrossed his arms. "An agent with that ability would be..."
"Invaluable," Olivia finished for him. "Walter, do you know anything more about that program? Did you work in it?"
"No, not me, but I met one of the scientists in charge. They were two men, the one I knew, American, and his British colleague. They were studying the basic cognitive process and their original idea was to help people with brain damage to recover their memories." His tone darkened. "Then the CIA came over."
Olivia didn't have time to deal with what that meant. "What are their names?"
Walter's sudden smile wavered until it disappeared. "I don't remember."
Peter sighed. "How typical."
They tried the usual things to awaken Walter's memory: from giving him snacks to playing his favorite songs, going through playing charades. Nothing worked. Searching through Walter's files was an option, but as Peter pointed out, it was possible that nothing could come from it, since it wasn't one of Walter's projects. Besides, Walter himself was convinced that if he had ever kept records about it he surely had destroyed them. When Olivia asked him how he knew that he just shrugged. It was something he simply knew.
In the end, Olivia decided to go to her office. She had work to do and she was achieving nothing in the laboratory. Nobody was, really. Even Peter seemed to be in the verge of losing his patience and he offered himself as a voluntary to buy cherry yoghourt when Walter demanded it in one of his mood swings.
Things seemed the usual calm in the FBI quarters. Olivia appreciated it. Five minutes saying random names in case one of them did the charm had given her a slight headache. The hazardous task of revising the list of residents in Meadow's Branch that had served to identify the remaining bodies happened to be a good therapy. As she had suspected, all the victims had lived in the suburban area before disappearing with other four couples whose status was "completely AWOL." From the ten, only Bradley White was acknowledged to be working for the CIA, other six seemed clean and the other two had a partially restricted file, obvious sign that they worked for some government agency in a clandestine capacity.
She was studying the list for a third time when Astrid called. In a shaky voice that didn't conceal her excitement much, she said she had found new data and asked Olivia if she could go back to the laboratory. The option of staying and chat with Charlie was tempting, but Olivia realized that the faster she discovered key information the sooner she would rest.
In the laboratory, Peter greeted her with a weak nod. Walter was next to Gene, sat down on a stool as he ate yoghourt. Astrid approached her with an expression Olivia found weird: it had more of nervousness than of satisfaction.
"You told me you found something," Olivia said, hoping for not ending up needing an Advil this time.
Astrid nodded. "Taking Walter's words about the objectives of the mysterious program as a basis, I found a match in something called Project Omaha."
"Does this name ring a bell, Walter?" Olivia asked.
Walter shook his head no without lifting his gaze from his yoghourt.
"According to the info, Project Omaha was a training camp for top score recruits that had as an objective the choosing of future candidates that showed extraordinary brain skills," Astrid explained.
"Candidates for what?"
"That's a good question. And it took me a considerable amount of time to find the answer. It was a obscure reference in a lost file, it said that Omaha had selected two suitable candidates as a part of a bigger project called Intersect."
Walter jumped from his seat. "Yes, that's it! That's the name of the project!" He was almost bouncing from excitement. "It comes from Intersection in Maths, the operation where two sets that have some common elements and others that aren't create a new set with the common ones. It was a logical name."
"Oh, now you say that," Peter said, sarcastic.
"Did you find something more about that Intersect project?" Olivia asked, ignoring the Bishops.
"Not much. Only that it was rejected by the FBI." Astrid grimaced. "As soon as I began to search for more information my access was blocked."
"Your access to national security files?"
"My access to everything. My Internet connection was cut out... I even lost the control of the computer."
Olivia looked at Peter instinctively. "Is that even possible?"
Peter's expression was grim. "Theoretically, yes. The problem is that for locating and IP and block the computer from the outside you need a hell of resources. Who has the power to do something like that?"
"Oh, I have my suspicions," Astrid said. That caught their attention. "Not long after that, a NSA agent called me."
"NSA?" Peter asked. "Like in National Security Agency?"
"No, the Nintendo Society of America." Peter blinked at her. It was strange to see Astrid being so directly sarcastic. "I'm sorry, I'm just edgy."
"It's all right," Olivia said. She extended her hand toward her in a calming gesture. "What did the agent want?"
"He asked if he could help me."
"That's what he said. That his department receives alerts when somebody searches for certain information and he asked what I wanted to know."
"What did you tell him?"
"The truth. I didn't see any need to lie. We're all government agencies, aren't we?"
Olivia suspected the answer, but even then she asked: "Did he help you?"
"No. I think he received orders while he was speaking with me. At first he was just wary, but after some time, when I told him we were investigating the dead of a CIA agent among ten other victims in L.A., and especially when I mentioned the Intersect, he barked to me that I didn't have security clearance to access some information. I reminded him that I was a federal agent in a federal investigation."
"What did he say?"
Astrid sneered. "That if I had any complain I could talk with his superiors. Until then my access is restricted."
Olivia brooded over what Astrid just said. She was encountering too many obstacles for her liking.
"So... the CIA and now the NSA," Peter broke the silence. "Am I the only one worried?"
No, but Olivia was too stubborn to admit it or even let it take over her. She didn't become a FBI agent to give up as soon as the first problem showed up in her way. Emily White deserved to know what exactly happened to her son.
"Astrid, is there any way that you can access the restricted files?"
"No without hacking their servers and I'm not anywhere that good." She waved her hands in front of her to stress her words.
"Peter..." The vibration coming from her cell phone cut her short.
"Did you want me to ask some of my weird friends?" he guessed.
Olivia nodded and smiled at him as she picked up the phone. "Dunham."
"Broyles here. I want to see you in my office. Now."
Olivia listened to the dead tone in the line. She had a bad feeling about this.