She thought she’d be safe in the dark alley. It was secluded and should have been quiet that night back by the dumpsters. But even though it was away from the hustle of daily life, it was still not quiet enough. The cacophony of Terran life in the high rises around her was still impossibly deafening. And even at that late hour, the constant traffic on the street where the alley ended was jarring. She sorely longed for the forest, where life seemed to take on a more subdued and peaceful character.
However, it wasn’t the ubiquitous and clamorous Terran life that so rudely impressed itself upon her delicate senses that she was most concerned about. It was the blank spots. The golems that silently and persistently hunted her.
Ambri’a took a deep breath and crouched back down behind the dumpster as she tried to gather her wits. She knew a golem had spotted her. It was impossible for her to totally fit in, to blend with the masses. She was an Elf. Her fur gave her away, and she sorely regretted not shaving. The ground seemed to vibrate under her bare feet as she looked up into the sky fearfully. The ship was up there, joining the hunt. They constantly pressed on her, denying her the rest she so desperately needed.
“You look like you’re crashing.”
Startled, Ambri’a stumbled back and scrambled to her feet, ready to flee. How did she miss him, the Terran skulking about in the darkness? It wasn’t dark to her. She should have seen him. Sensed him. But her senses were numb from the sheer abundance of Terrans as well as from exhaustion. She squinted, detecting him now. His life impression on her senses complimented what she saw with her eyes. Not a golem. Shaking her head, Ambri’a sighed and looked back up at the sky, then fearfully down the alley. No golems had followed him in. She slumped, relieved.
The stranger took her change in posture as permission and approached her. “I can get you fixed up. My stuff is the best you can get. High class. I already know what I want in return.”
“No,” Ambri’a said simply, turning away from him. She avoided meeting his gaze, happy that Terrans had bad night vision. Nevertheless, she still pulled her hood a little tighter around her face. The golems monitored all Terran communications. If he saw her for what she was and made a fuss with his phone, they would track her there immediately.
“That’s what they all say, honey.” The man laughed as he put both hands on the wall on either side of her, blocking her egress. His shirt pulled up a little from his stance, exposing a pistol stuffed in his pants. She glanced down then back up at him, cocking her head. He grinned, noticing that she had looked down. “That’s right, baby. I got a package for you.”
“Is it bullet-proof?” Ambri’a asked.
The man froze, his eyes going wide. He looked down. Ambri’a had grabbed his pistol and twisted it around in his pants while pulling back the hammer. Ambri’a smiled widely at his instant change of attitude. “I am so fascinated that such a small thing can dictate your destiny.”
“Hey, if you don’t want a fix, just say so,” the man stammered, holding his hands up.
Ambri’a pulled the pistol out of his pants and disassembled it deftly with one hand, letting the pieces fall to the ground around her. She glanced down the alley, then back up at the sky as the man scrambled to collect up the pieces.
“Lady, you are nuts! You know that?” The man stood up, trying to put his pistol back together.
Ambri’a sniffed then squinted at him. Something didn’t smell right. Before he could say anything else, she grabbed his face and closed her eyes. The man stood there, trembling, as his eyes fluttered while she sifted through his memories. Those memories confirmed what she had smelled. He had been with the golem, and recently. She saw it in his recollection. A petite, brunette woman. The man had hit on it too, attempting to seduce it with his product and lust. Ambri’a was surprised he had survived. She gulped as she realized that he had only recently hit on the golem just minutes ago. It was very close. She let him go then looked around for an exit from the alley while the man slumped to the ground, drooling as he continued to tremble.
Then she saw the golem again. Not in the man’s memories this time, but at the entrance of the alley. Without hesitation, Ambri’a bolted through the closest door just as a bar employee opened it. His bag of trash spilled and he cursed at her as she rushed by and slammed the door shut behind her, locking him out in the alley.
“I was using that!” the employee yelled as he banged on the door. “Great. Now I’ll have to go all the way around front.” He started gathering up the spilled trash. Grumbling, he turned and noticed a petite figure kneeling beside a man who was laying in what appeared to be a growing puddle of urine.
“Is he okay?”
“He’ll live.” Her voice was sultry as she stood up and sauntered over to him. “Where does that lead to?”
The employee looked back at the locked door. “It’s a service hallway. There’s us and like, five other bars and restaurants that…it’s locked.” He stood to the side as she put her hand on the door.
“No. It’s not locked.” The woman grinned coyly as she pushed. The steel bolt on the door sheared off without any resistance and she winked at the employee as she swung the door wide. “Better have that looked at. Somebody might sneak in.” She giggled as she stepped into the hall, leaving a stunned employee with a broken bag of trash standing in the alley.
Ambri’a ran through the dark halls, stopping at several of the doors that led to their respective restaurants. One was ajar and she peeked in. She could hear music and dishes being stacked and cleaned. Entering in, she paced around a few times, touched a few of the appliances and then backed out into the hall. She looked back furtively as she continued down the hall then tossed a little marble behind her. Before it reached the door, it quietly detonated, releasing a cloud of mist that wafted back towards her. Nodding in satisfaction, she looked up and jumped up into the false ceiling, closing the foam ceiling tile carefully behind her as she peeked out.
The mist quickly cleared and she watched as the golem followed her scent and heat trail up to the restaurant. It stopped and looked around. Ambri’a held her breath as she closed the ceiling tile a little more. The golem poked its head into the restaurant, then walked in. The employee followed it, complaining loudly that it wasn’t supposed to be in there. Ambri’a sat back, balancing on the beam that supported the ceiling tiles as she allowed herself to breathe. The special mist had cleared her presence successfully. She looked around, saw a large intake vent in the ducting system, and crawled over to it. Without hesitating, she removed the service grate and climbed into the duct, then tossed another marble back behind her as she crawled through the ventilation system, hoping desperately to convince the golem she had taken another exit.
The office was dark. Ambri’a squinted as she scanned the room for any sign of movement. The daytime staff had long since left. She had not detected any hint of pursuit since she evaded the golem several floors below. Taking a careful breath, Ambri’a tentatively pushed open the grate to the ventilation duct, wincing as a tiny, metallic squeak seemed to reverberate around the room. She closed the grate behind her and walked to one of the desks and picked up a phone. The tone was welcoming. She dialed a number, then crouched down behind the desk.
“They are herding me,” Ambri’a whispered. She peeked up over the desk and scanned the room fearfully with her eyes. “It’s like they know I’m here. Like they know wherever I go.”
“Are you intact?” The voice was cool and controlled. Ambri’a clung to it like a sturdy anchor.
“Yes.” Ambri’a sank back down. “I hurt. They tortured me. But they didn’t ask me anything. It was just like…” Ambri’a stopped and rubbed her face. “Like Mom.”
“Ro’wen?” Ambri’a caught her breath. “I mean, Ron?”
“I am still here. Do not use my name again. They are always listening.”
“Sorry. I’m so tired.” Ambri’a rubbed her brows as she fought back tears of frustration.
“How did you escape?”
“During a transfer. I pretended to be unconscious,” Ambri’a said.
“The Sadari do not make mistakes like that. We will need to assume they intended to release you.”
“Release me?” Ambri’a tried not to yell as she half stood up. “I have been running from them for two days!” She looked around fearfully as she sank back down.
“They are trying to find us,” Ro’wen said coolly. “Continue with your mission.”
“Yeah, my mission,” Ambri’a said sarcastically. She pulled an object out of her pocket and activated it. An indicator hung in the air in front of her, and it pointed to the South. “I don’t know if I can get there. They… it’s like they know I’m trying to get there.”
“It is imperative that you do. We need to know if the Fracture really has weakened,” Ro’wen insisted.
Ambri’a nodded to no one in particular then she shook her head. “I still think we need to focus on finding a Conduit. This risk is… we don’t have a Gatekeeper who can exploit the Fracture anyway. I still don’t understand what we are going to do.”
“A weakening of the Fracture may allow the latent Gate to transmit signals.” Ro’wen said with measured patience.
“May. That’s a big may. Grandmother said that Conduits are always watched. That’s the surest way. We need to find a Conduit.” Ambri’a grumbled.
“Even when your sisters and mother were still… alive… it would have been far harder to scan enough people to find a Conduit, Ambri’a.” Ro’wen said quietly.
“We need to resume the search, Ro’wen. I’m the last Elf on the team. It’s not like we have a lot of options.” Ambri’a said.
“Then what? How can we identify our location to the Watchers? Outside of the Gate zone, Gatekeepers would not know from where to collect us.” Ro’wen snapped.
Ambri’a fumed, looking up at the tiles on the ceiling. “At least then we’d have a reason to go to the Gate region.”
“And yet, how will we know they’re even watching? It’s one way communication at best, Ambri’a, and we have no way to know if they get the message.”
Ambri’a scowled and peeked over the desk again. “They’re all over that area, Ro… Ron.” Ambri’a sighed and rubbed her temples again. “It’s like they’re expecting us. I know they’re expecting us. They have to know about the weakening Fracture too.”
“Be that as it may, we must get word back. This is the first and surest opportunity in three thousand years.”
“For you, maybe,” Ambri’a muttered.
Ambri’a didn’t answer. She looked up at the ceiling as she tried to calm down.
“Try not to get yourself killed.”
“The pure-blood actually cares?” Ambri’a smirked as she wiped her eyes.
“We all care,” Ro’wen said sourly. “You wouldn’t be on this mission if it were not crucial to our survival.”
Ambri’a shook her head and hung the phone up, then crawled back into the ventilation shaft to get some sleep. The sun was rising soon and she couldn’t travel out there during the day anyway. She had already attracted too much attention to herself.
~ ~ ~
“I worked with the Mujaheddin against the Taliban. I helped the resistance destabilize Iraq, which would have worked if I actually had some support.” Andrew Lee jabbed his finger at his boss. “I helped in destabilization campaigns in South America. And this is what I get?” Andrew exclaimed in a loud whisper as he fidgeted angrily in his chair. “I should be heading up the new operation in Georgia. Not Clancy.”
“And your wife is just going to up and move to Germany again? She hated it the first time.”
“Don’t even use her, Keith.” Andrew bristled. “Do not go there.” He sat back, rubbing his temples. “She knows my cover job has relocation requirements. She’s cool with that.”
“You’re also still having your headaches, too.” Keith closed the folder and put it back on the desk.
“And I’m seeing someone about that.” Andrew frowned. He wasn’t surprised Keith knew. There were no secrets in the CIA. He took in a breath and put his hands down, ignoring the throbbing in his head. “Besides, name one instance that has been detrimental to my job.”
“Your record is outstanding, Andrew.”
“Then why? Why this?” Andrew waved his hand at the folder. “You can get any number of people to handle this. You have an office full of analysts that would love to get out of their cubicles for this. I’m a field agent, for crying out loud!”
“Of course we can assign someone else to this. But we chose you. It’s not as bad as you think.”
“I’m going to be a babysitter. And that’s not bad?” Andrew’s tone dripped with sarcasm. “You’re loaning me to the NSA.”
“You’re experience as a handler in Moscow makes you very qualified for this.”
“That was only for a couple of years,” Andrew grumbled, fidgeting and rubbing the back of his neck. He really wished he had brought something for his headache.
“It saved lives in Bosnia.”
Andrew looked at Keith and shook his head. “Really? How many? I came in near the end of the conflict.”
“Andrew, this is a high profile case.”
“To us, perhaps. No one else knows about them. So don’t make it like it’s some sort of celebrity thing.” Andrew pointed a finger at him again. “And… why the heck did you have them shuttled off to the civilian jails? Civilian courts don’t know a thing about them.”
Keith crossed his arms and looked at Andrew.
“Oh… because they don’t know a thing about them. You running your own little show here, Keith?”
“Let’s just say this is an extremely sensitive matter, Andrew. I want you on board with this.” Keith said.
Andrew pursed his lips. “This is all too… political for me, Keith. I prefer behind the scenes anyway.”
“This will be. You even get to go back to Seattle.”
“You know how this looks, don’t you? You’re putting me out to pasture. Like I’m dried up and useless. I mean, you’re sending Clancy to Georgia? With my team?”
“It looks like you’re being given a critical assignment that requires the best we have.” Keith patted the folder.
“Babysitting a couple of traitors is hardly critical,” Andrew grumbled. “This isn’t because of that radioactive thing, is it? I checked out. Not a chirp from the Geiger counter.”
“Andrew, this is right up your alley. They have already cracked the Russian networks wide open once. Now they’re going to do it for us.”
“They cracked ours too, in case you haven’t forgotten.” Andrew looked coolly at Keith. His boss was doing his best to placate him without making it an outright command but it was still a command. An assignment he had no choice but to do.
Keith nodded. “That’s why they get you. The best agents Russia had couldn’t find you, after all.”
“They would have found me if I had been there when these jokers were spilling all the secrets.” Andrew nodded at the folder.
“And now they’re part of damage control,” Keith said, crossing his arms. “And, Andrew, this is black-ops. Only you, me, and they know about this arrangement.”
“Oh, nothing could possibly go wrong with that.” Andrew rubbed his eyes. “It really is your private little project, isn’t it?”
“We erased their criminal history, gave them a clean slate, and they belong to us lock, stock, and barrel.” Keith patted the folder proudly. “It’s win-win, but with a huge margin of plausible deniability.” He looked behind Andrew and nodded. “They’re here.”
Andrew turned around in his chair to look at them. He was stunned. “My God. They’re just kids!”
“You’re just a kid, too,” Keith said, wryly.
“I am not! And I’m older than these…this…” Andrew stammered then shut up. “What, are they still in school?”
“Believe it or not, both graduated way early.” Keith looked down and opened up the folder again. “Sally and Jonah Crow.” He raised his eyebrows as he looked at a fresh report coming across his computer screen. “You will want to keep a close eye on their computer use too. Jonah almost got both of them transferred out. And from two separate jails. Our transfer order is the only reason we still have them.” He grinned and shook his head. “What a couple of geniuses.”
“A blond bimbo and Tonto?” Andrew looked at Keith, incredulous.
“Says the China man?” Keith smirked as he closed the folder again.
“I didn’t mean it like…” Andrew sighed and looked back around as the couple were ushered into the office by a police officer.
“Who’s signing for them?” The officer looked at the pair of them impatiently.
Andrew looked at Keith, almost begging to be let off the assignment. Keith raised an eyebrow and Andrew sighed, shaking his head. He raised up his hand and the officer handed him a clipboard.
“Print your name there, too.” The officer pointed.
“I know how to do this,” Andrew grumbled. “Here. Bye. Go find a donut or something.”
The officer ignored the barb and casually looked at the signature. “Actually, your agency is treating me to a steak dinner since I had to drive so far to deliver these convicts.”
“Figures. I’m lucky to get a burger.” Andrew scowled as the officer walked off. He looked at the couple who stood there appearing nervous and out of place. He could tell Jonah was actively trying to not appear like he was looking at Keith’s computer and memorizing everything on his screen. He rubbed the back of his neck then glanced back at Keith. “This is so wrong.”