“You’re going back in too soon! The Conduit is getting feedback.”
Karan’za ignored the warning and lay down on the mat. She looked up at the living ceiling and took in a deep breath. As she mentally prepared to enter the mind of an unwitting Terran, she traced the tight weave of the branches overhead with her eyes.
“You’re suffering, too. You need more rest.”
She took another deep, meditative breath, paying close attention to how it felt. She allowed the little sounds of the forest to filter in, and embraced the reality around her. For the time that she was under, she wouldn’t be herself. Her entire person would be wrapped up in that of the subject. Her consciousness would be but a shadow, something out of the corner of one’s eye that disappears as soon as attention is drawn to it. The subject would have no idea, nor would she. Part of her was terrified of the concept of losing herself. The other part was thrilled.
“Karan’za…are you listening to me?”
Karan’za smiled. She loved annoying her Anchor. They always worried too much. She looked up at a frowning, furry face and winked.
“Don’t give me that. You’re being reckless,” Enos’rel said, scowling.
“This Conduit is being reassigned. He’s moving to a new area. I get to see new things.” Karan’za shifted a little on her mat and looked back at the ceiling as she continued her submersion preparations. “Enos’rel, it’s exactly how Orin predicted. I know it. They’re there.”
“Regardless, you are staying in way too long. He’s suffering symptoms. So are you. You’re on the very edge of disaster.”
“His symptoms could be from job stress, Enos’rel. You know that.” Karan’za cocked her head so she could see him better. “You know there’s no interaction, right? There’s never been feedback before. I’m just a…” She searched for the Terran phrase. “…a fly on a wall.”
“There’s never been feedback before. His symptoms are probably just stress,” Karan’za repeated, looking at the ceiling again as she returned to her meditative device she used to relax before going back in. Tracing the branches.
“We’ve never had Watchers push the limits until now either. Even dying. If you get more nosebleeds, we’ll need to bring in more blood,” Enos’rel grumbled. “No. It’s too dangerous. You’re not going back in.”
“Where’s the Librarian?”
“I sent him away. You’re done.” Enos’rel crossed his arms.
“You’re funny.” Karan’za giggled. Enos’rel looked down and saw that she was touching his leg. His thoughts were already hers. But then, hers were his too. He sensed for an instant the thrill of anticipation she was experiencing and shook his head as he peeled her fingers off his leg.
“We may have to pull you, Karan’za. I will pull you. I have that authority. This is becoming too personal to you. You’re getting sucked in just like…” Enos’rel stopped and looked out the window. “I can’t lose you like that, Karan’za. I’ll pull you from the mission.”
“And Orin will restore me.” Karan’za shifted again as she got comfortable. “Unless you have more Watchers to replace me? Are there any more Elvish Gatekeepers coming to relieve me?”
Enos’rel scowled and looked over his shoulder. The Librarian stood up and walked quietly over to her as he sat back and glared at the two of them.
“Keep me Anchored, Enos’rel. You’re the best at that. I’ll be fine.” Karan’za patted his leg as she relaxed even further. Enos’rel resided in the same tree that her family occupied and was ideal to keep her mindful of home when she was not herself.
“I’ll keep you Anchored, but if you break the chain, we will lose you,” Enos’rel said quietly as he slumped, despondent. He gathered up his thoughts and grabbed her hand, sharing his memories of their home with her as he got busy anchoring her.
“Then I’d better not… better… not…” Karan’za started as she started drifting off. Her eyes were closing and she found the Conduit and completely lost her train of thought. In a flash, she was no longer she.
~ ~ ~
“You have got to be kidding me!” Andrew yelled furiously. “I put in this requisition a week ago. I bought those with my own money.”
“Sorry, sir. But you’re not on the reimbursement list anymore,” the clerk said absentmindedly as he typed something on his terminal.
“Well look again! I’ve been on there for… for forever. Since I’ve been with this agency. How can I not be on there?”
The clerk looked up at him, annoyed. “Reimbursements only apply if you’re on a mission or in training. Personal expenditures…”
“That was practice, not personal. Fine tuning my marksmanship. It was training,” Andrew insisted as he leaned against the counter. He fought the urge to climb over and pound it into the smug clerk’s head.
“Your current assignment does not qualify for reimbursement, sir.”
“Two weeks ago I was on another assignment.”
“Two weeks ago you were transitioning and debriefing and…” He looked at the screen. “In medical.” The clerk crossed his arms. “Another round of radiation treatment? Hardly any call to be training.”
“This…this is wrong. Those bullets were expensive. Do you think I’m rich?”
The clerk shrugged and returned his attention to the monitor. “Leave your firearm, please.”
“Not this one. This one is mine!” Andrew patted his holster.
The clerk stopped typing and looked at him over his glasses.
Andrew fidgeted and dug into his knapsack. “Here. Here’s your stupid pistol. It’s a worthless piece of…”
“The holster too.”
“Yeah, yeah. Do you think I’m stupid?” Andrew pulled the holster from the bag, unwrapped both it and the government issue pistol from the packing plastic, and plopped them unceremoniously on the counter. “I tried to check this in last year but you insisted I keep it.”
“Personal weapons are not authorized on mission.” The clerk examined the pistol. “You were issued a full clip.”
“Huh? Are you serious? You won’t reimburse me for my….and now I have to shell out more just to…” Andrew stammered as he fumbled in his pack and found a box. “Here’s some stupid bullets. Should be five left.”
The clerk looked at him.
Andrew shrugged. “That’s all I have on me.”
“Fine. The rest will be deducted from your pay.” The clerk went back to typing.
Andrew stared at him for a moment then tossed the paperwork in the air and spun on his heels.
“Get your crap and follow me,” Andrew snapped as he walked by Sally and Jonah. They fidgeted and looked at each other as they grabbed their bags and hurried after Andrew, trying to keep up.
After several minutes of fuming silence, they arrived at another part of the large campus and Andrew stepped into a medical waiting room, glaring at Sally and Jonah as they caught up. “Sit!”
Sally bristled, but Andrew gave her a murderous glare and she sat down next to Jonah. “We’re people, you know.”
“Right now you’re a headache and I’m looking for some aspirin,” Andrew grumbled as he went to the counter. “Andrew Lee.”
“We were just about to give your slot away,” the nurse said, looking at him sternly over her glasses.
Andrew rolled his eyes and grit his teeth. “I was held up in supply.”
The nurse made a rude noise as she picked up her clipboard and walked past him without another word.
“Do I get Roger? He’s been handling my case.”
“Yes. He’s been waiting breathlessly for you,” the nurse said sarcastically.
“Good.” Andrew tried to ignore the sarcasm. His headache was back and he was already irritated.
“Sir. Your ten o’clock finally made it,” the nurse said.
“Andrew! We were wondering if you’d make it,” Roger said, smiling as he stood up from his desk. He nodded at the nurse who promptly left the room, giving Andrew a cool look as she walked by.
“Did I make her mad?” Andrew looked back at her as the door closed. “Did she lose a bet or something?”
“It’s your sunny disposition, Andrew,” Roger said as he sat on the edge of his desk and looked at a folder. “I see you’ve been reassigned. Not bad.”
“Not bad? Are you kidding? Roger, I’m a CIA field agent. I’m supposed to be out stirring the pot down in South America, or the Middle East or something. All my contacts are going to go cold. They put me on a local detail. Like some analyst. You know what that means, right?” Andrew sat down heavily on the couch.
“Every field agent gets rotated stateside from time to time, Andrew,” Roger said, looking at Andrew over his glasses. Andrew noticed the trend and fought the urge to go rip those glasses off the physician’s face.
“I am six for six, Roger. Top of my game.” Andrew crossed his arms as he kicked at the rug with his heel. “In this business, you’re either going up or going down.” He looked at Roger. “My new assignment isn’t going down. It’s splatting at the bottom of the crap bucket. I ticked someone off and can’t get a straight answer.”
“Andrew, maybe you’re not getting a straight answer because there is none.”
“I’ve been with the agency for almost ten years. Half a dozen deep cover and long term assignments and all successful. I made a difference, Roger. A big difference. Saved lives even.” Andrew half got out of his seat. “You know what they did? They took my pistol. That’s right. My pistol.”
“Is it needed for your assignment?”
Andrew sat back down and fumed.
“They took your weapon when you went to Moscow, too.”
“Yeah…but it wasn’t like this,” Andrew said. “I’ve been busting my butt trying to move my career forward. Every crap job they gave me I turned into a success.”
“There are no crap jobs in the CIA, Andrew.” Roger put his folder down and sat down next to him. “Look that way.”
Andrew complied as the physician peered through an ophthalmoscope at one of his eyes. “I feel like I’m being put out to pasture. Retired before my time. Like they’re just shifting me to the back of the group until I’m….a clerk or something.”
Roger laughed as he examined his other eye. “That’s why the clerks love you so much.”
“I’m being serious, Roger. What is it about me? I play by the numbers and do the job right. I get along with my team. No complaints. Not a single bad mark on my record.” Andrew looked at the physician.
“Andrew, many times, our job is what we make of it.” Roger put his scope away and passed a finger in front of Andrew’s face. “Follow this please. No, keep your head straight. Eyes.”
“I’ve tried to make the best out of it. But sometimes, crap is crap. A birthday candle doesn’t make it a cake.” Andrew grimaced as the doctor examined his thyroid glands on his neck.
“I’m seeing double right now. But then I’ve had a really bad day. My career is being flushed down the toilet.” Andrew blinked and looked at the physician. “Have the tests come back yet?”
“They’re clear, Andrew. No tumor.” Roger jotted some notes in his folder.
“Crap.” Andrew sighed as he leaned back on the couch and slumped.
Roger laughed. “That’s a first for me.”
“Is this it? Why they’re shelving me? This… problem I’m having? It’s not gotten in the way, Roger. I can shoot the wings off a gnat at fifty yards on my worst day. You know that. That stupid clerk knows too. He has to be jealous.” Andrew frowned and crossed his arms.
Roger shrugged. “I only send the reports upstairs, Andrew. But everyone gets migraines from time to time.”
“Not all the time.” Andrew rubbed his nose and flinched. “Look! Look at that! Second time this week.”
Roger gave him a tissue and Andrew held it to his nose, trying to stem the blood. “See? Do you believe me now?”
“I believed you before, Andrew,” Roger said as he jotted some notes down in his folder.
“Roger, I need this fixed. This has to be it. I need to get my career back on track,” Andrew said. “You have to do something.”
“You are as fit as any of our agents, Andrew.” Roger put his pen back in his pocket. “What I am seeing is excessive anxiety and Andrew, that is part of the job. Take some downtime and depressurize.”
“You’re saying this is all in my head? What about that Russian uranium? You tested me when I was here on leave.”
“None of your team tested for exposure and you all handled the case.” Roger shook his head as he scribbled some more.
“It can’t be as simple as that. I’m happy. See?” Andrew gave Roger a big smile.
“Stress is a tangible cause of many illnesses, Andrew.”
“Then give me a pill or something. I need to get back in the field. Not this…” He stopped and shook his head. Black-ops prevented him from divulging more of his current mission even to his CIA physician. “Roger, I need a solution. I have to find a way to turn this around.”
“It sounds like you’ve been given an easy assignment.” Roger stood up. “Take it. Use it to recover. A pill isn’t going to solve this. Spend some time with your wife. Even your brother.”
Andrew looked at the ceiling as he dabbed his nose. “Great. Just great. You know where my brother goes?”
Roger looked at him with a raised eyebrow.
“Nowhere. Stuck in the same hole in the wall job. I’ve been out there, Roger. I’ve made something for myself. I’ve made a real difference. And I can still make a difference. Georgia is wide open. Ripe fruit ready for the picking. I should have that gig.”
“I think you’ll still make a difference. But you need a shift in perspective and a break from the action can do it. You are still happily married, right?”
Andrew chewed his cheek.
“Spend some time with the Mrs.” Roger looked at Andrew. “Get reacquainted. This job is murder on marriages.”
“We’re okay,” Andrew said as he played with a spot on the carpet. He glanced up at Roger. “No, really. I mean…she even went to Germany when I was in Moscow. We’re doing fine.”
“Keep telling yourself that.” Roger looked sideways at Andrew.
“Okay, so I’m gone a lot. But it’s worked really well. She understands. Sort of.”
“She understands that you’re a Navy officer who is deployed most of the time,” Roger said. “That can be hard on the both of you. Especially the secrets.”
Andrew shrugged. “I’m good with it. She’s managing. My brother checks in on her a few times a week. We’re making it work.”
“Everyone has their limits, Andrew.” Roger crossed his arms. “You know as well as anyone that pushing those limits too long affects mission performance.”
“Not a complaint, Roger. Not a single bad mark.” Andrew bristled. “Ask my team if you don’t believe me. They’re going to hate having to deal with Clancy. He’s a micro-manager.”
“No complaints yet, Andrew. Yet. Perhaps your boss is trying to keep it that way.” Roger nodded.
Andrew dabbed his nose and wadded the tissue up. “I want to believe you, Roger. But gut instinct is saying something else. It’s screaming at me. I like my job. I love it. I don’t want to lose it and now… Roger, this is really a crap assignment. I may as well be assigned janitor at the landfill.”
“Don’t knock it. CIA janitors are well paid.” Roger grinned.
“Very funny. You should be a comedian,” Andrew said, trying not to smile.
“My prescription is, take the assignment as an opportunity to unwind. I expect you to report back to me in six months with a much better outlook. Understand?”
“Yes, sir,” Andrew moped. “I was hoping for a pill.”
“That’s your pill. Get out of my office now. I have a cup of coffee that’s getting cold.” Roger stood up and looked at him expectantly. Andrew shook his head and followed suit. He hesitated briefly, then left the office.
“Did he give you a pill?” Sally snarked as Andrew walked by.
“Shut up and follow me,” Andrew grumbled.
“Apparently no pill.” Sally smirked at Jonah.
Jonah shook his head. “If you poke the jellyfish, you’re going to get stung.”
“He’s being a jerk,” Sally said loud enough for Andrew to hear. Andrew kept walking until they were out at the parking area. “Where are we going?”
“Hotel. We’re leaving early tomorrow morning, so get your sleep,” Andrew said glumly as he got in the car.
“The cop that brought us here was funner,” Sally grumbled as she got in.
“Back seat.” Andrew glared at her. “I need some space right now.”
~ ~ ~
“The results are back.”
Keith shifted his phone. “Good news?”
“I’m not sure. He still has his headaches.”
“He is a headache. What about the incident?”
Roger shifted his papers. “Keith, he is squeaky clean. Same as his team. He got more radiation exposure from the flight home. I’ve run every test imaginable and it’s been almost a year. His treatments have been purely preventative.”
Keith frowned and crossed his arms while he balanced the phone on his shoulder. “No sign of contamination at all?”
“From what I’ve read of the debriefing, he and his team has been through a full decontamination routine, plus iodine supplements.” Roger looked at his notes. “Which he filed a complaint about. We should make it taste less like…” Roger cocked his head. “That’s a Russian word but….”
“Leave it. No one likes that stuff, but it is what it is.” Keith waved his hand. He rubbed his temples. “So my team is in the clear, then? No demons waiting to jump out of the shadows?”
“It would appear so. He’s the only one exhibiting symptoms. I mean, a lot of it points to radiation poisoning, but… they have to be from something else. Keith. Perhaps there’s a low level infection that’s evading our analysis. I’m doing another round of tests on his blood samples.”
“I should have sent him to Georgia then.” Keith shook his head, sighing. “But…”
“But Mary. She hated it last time. Remember Germany? And this detail you have him on is pretty sensitive anyway. Who else would you trust with this but him?” Roger asked.
“It is a bit convenient.” Keith nodded. “Killing two birds with one stone. You didn’t tell him, did you?”
“Are you nuts? I’ll let her tell him!” Roger exclaimed then covered his mouth when the nurse opened the door and peeked in. He shook his head. “No. And Keith, I think you’re obsessing over nothing. No radiation damage to worry about.”
“Do you blame me? Oh, and I want to confirm that his mission is registered black-ops. Complete interdepartmental black-out. I want to keep this close to the chest. That goes for you too. If word gets out that our latest, greatest achievements came about because of the actions of a pair of treasonous felons, it’ll get rather messy around here for all of us. It’s bad enough that Eric found out.”
Roger made the zipper motion over his mouth, then realized that Keith wasn’t there to see it. “No problem, Keith. Besides, you’ve been great job security for me. No one else seems to put their teams as far out on the edge as you do.”
“You remember that.” Keith grinned and hung the phone up.