I awake to a hammering on the door, startled into full awareness. The dream lingers. A woman floundering, pushed into deep water, drowning. Me, the only one in a position to help – but unable to move. Frozen in place, as if held there by a physical force.
“Kayla!” Becky’s voice is urgent, and I reach out to scan her thoughts.
“With you,” I say. Roll free of the blankets, plant my feet on the floor. Join her in our safe space by the fountain, the haven inside our minds, uniquely ours because of what it represents to us. We stand together, as we do, watching the water droplets sparkle in the sunlight, splash gently into the basin.
‘You had the nightmare again,’ she says.
‘Not a good sign,’ I say. ‘I’m guessing Erica will have a fit if she finds out.’
‘The problem isn’t that you can’t help,’ she says. ‘Being unable to act in a stressful situation is pretty common. The problem for you is – you shouldn’t have got to that point. Because you would have known she was going to be pushed. And you’d have stopped whoever did it before it happened.’
‘You’re my shrink now?’
She smiles, looks at me. ‘Anything I can do, let me know,’ she says.
I return the look, smile back. ‘This,’ I say, gesturing around us. Take her by the hand. ‘This is what you can do. Bring me here, and it all calms down. I’ll see you in the hallway.’
‘About time,’ she says.
And I am opening the door to my room, my clothes disheveled and my hair a tangle of brown knots. Becky standing there waiting, today all oranges and yellows, like lemon sunshine. “I like it,” I say. Squint at her and shield my eyes.
“So do I,” she says. Indicates my hair. “Especially the coiffure.”
“Took me hours,” I say.
“Remind me to make an appointment,” she says. Takes my hand, pulls me in the direction of the elevators.
“So, it’s happening,” I say. Not a question, a statement.
“We didn’t think they’d really go through with it,” she says. “But Carlos says they’re already off the grid. I’m guessing they dug out the trackers, crowned them so we couldn’t follow their signatures. And then again, M.M.C. shields are pretty effective.”
“Peter Chalmers,” she says. “They stripped him first. Then John Turnbull an hour or so later.”
“Nicole?” I ask.
“She and Greg West are still active, so far as I know,” she says.
We reach the elevators and dial Monitoring.
“I suppose this was inevitable,” I say. “That I should be pleased they lasted a month before they were discovered.”
“Kayla, who knows what they accomplished in that time?” Becky says. “Maybe there’s a whole new attitude inside M.M.C. because of what they’ve been doing.”
I look at her doubtfully. “Something, for sure,” I say. “But my concern now is that Janneke won’t stop with two of the joint team members. Who knows what she’s doing to the others right now, inside M.M.C, where we can’t do anything to help.”
Becky nods. “I know,” she says. “It’s not easy.”
“Understatement,” I say.
“So, I’m sure you have a plan,” Becky says. “You always do. But wait until we’re all together before you spring it on me. Please.”
“You implying something?”
“The shock factor is always a little easier to deal with when all of us get the news at the same time,” she says. “Kind of distributes the burden.”
“Then don’t link up with me Becky,” I say. “Or you might get the fright of your life.”
She looks at me doubtfully. “Really?”
I smile. “Don’t have any idea,” I say. “I’m making it up as I go.” The elevator doors open, and we move out into the bustle of Monitoring. “Is Isobel prepped?”
“I had Wally rouse her,” she says. “They should be here already.”
“You know it’s probably too late for John and Peter,” I say. “Janneke doesn’t have a sensitive bone in her body. She won’t just cut them loose.”
“We figured,” she says. “But I can’t see you giving up on them.”
My expression hardens. “No,” I say. “Not on your life.”
Ahead in Carlos’ office we see Isobel and Walter standing beside the instrument panel. Carlos gestures energetically towards one of the many screens active in front of him. They all look up as we arrive. I note the momentary look of surprise as they take in my unkempt appearance.
“Don’t say it,” I say. “You want the name of my stylist too.”
Isobel smiles. Walter looks sheepish. Carlos simply reaches his hand up, takes mine briefly, and returns to scanning the display.
“We’ve got them,” Carlos says. Indicates a marker on the map. “South side. Near Heatherington Park. They’ve just stopped.”
A sudden rush of emotion floods into me, and I see a vision of a distant memory flash briefly through my mind. Becky takes my hand, and I know she feels it too.
“Probably planned this,” I say quietly. “Especially for me.” Look at Becky. “For both of us.”
“Doesn’t matter,” Becky says. “We can still make it happen.”
“What exactly are we doing?” Isobel says.
I look at each of them in turn. “Janneke will be grilling the other two,” I say. “She discovered what we were trying to do, infiltrate and subvert M.M.C. from inside, so she’ll make sure we learn the lesson well. Never to cross her.”
“What about John and Peter?” Isobel says.
“You know as well as I do that they’re the bait,” I say. Swallow, remembering Becky’s brilliant colors, the radiant beacon that drew me for the first time into I.I.I. while I walked through that park. “So yes, we help them any way we can. But we don’t lose sight of what the real issue is here.”
“And how can the five of us take on M.M.C?” Carlos says.
“We won’t have to,” I say. “M.M.C. are their own worst enemy. All we need is to heighten their sense that all their nasty indoctrination has been widely undermined inside the organization, that half of their staff have already changed their allegiance…”
“And we can create an internal war, within M.M.C,” Becky says.
“What I was thinking,” I say. “We already know they must have doubts about how far our efforts to change M.M.C. have taken us. We just need to feed their paranoia.”
“I’m still not clear on how exactly we do that,” Isobel says.
“I know,” I say. “But I learned a lot during those few brief sessions I spent with Kayla Two. You know, the one we helped when we dealt with The Shimmer. My mirror self. And the thing that is most helpful in this situation – is that I can pool a good deal of mental energy together. Use it as I choose. Without greatly affecting those involved.”
“You think you can get inside M.M.C?” Walter’s eyes are wide with excitement. “I’ve always wanted to get my hands on some of their tech!”
“Maybe later, Wally,” I say. Smile at him. “Today I’m going to need you and Carlos to direct the snatch squad. Move in and pick up John and Peter.”
A sudden look of terror sweeps across Walter’s face. “I’m not a field agent,” he says shakily. “I don’t – I can’t function under fire.”
“I think you can do your work from here,” I say. “Leave the M.M.C. agents to me.”
The relief that flows through Walter is palpable. He looks at Carlos and nods. “We can do it, Kayla,” he says.
“But we’re going out there?” Isobel says.
“Someone has to be in place to pull out Nicole and Greg,” I say. “You know the location. Becky is our shield. And I can run the diversion.”
I sense the anticipation in both of them, their readiness to take this on. “Carlos,” I say. “You let Ejansu know what you’re doing. Have him back you up. I’ll get Alexis’ approval, and he can send out a squad to pick up our two evicted agents. Wally, you block any signals that come out of that park area, so the I.I.I. team isn’t interrupted. Everyone good?”
There is a mood of exhilaration as they each warm to their tasks. Carlos heads out into the main Monitoring area to have his chat with Ejansu, now the prime in charge of the operation. “Wally, I need those blocks up now,” I say. “I’m going to do a little disruption. And we don’t want M.M.C. to know. At least not yet.”
“Right,” he says. Takes a seat at Carlos’ station, begins pulling up the defensive system.
“Ladies,” I say. “Can you put in a quick call to Alexis and ask him to come up here? I want it clear to everyone that we’ve been given the go-ahead for this little operation.”
“Surely,” Becky says. She puts a hand on Isobels’ shoulder and they walk out together. I watch them go, feeling the warmth and strength of their connection with me, and with each other, and wondering for the thousandth time how I ever got along before I had that bond to keep me going. Then I turn back to Wally, see his nod. And reach out with my mind.
They have left the vehicle behind, parked in a quiet side street. Four M.M.C. agents, leading the compliant John Turnbull and Peter Chalmers with only a gentle prod now and then to keep them moving in the right direction. They are in the trees, following the same path I’d been on when I was snatched and brought in to I.I.I. for training. Back when I led a different life; when I was an immature, very much younger person. I sense their minds as if they’re standing beside me, distressed to see the subdued state that both John and Peter have been placed in. They are like zombies, brains robbed of all but basic autonomic abilities. Perhaps beyond help, even here. But still my responsibility.
I leap into the minds of all six at once, forcing my way past all defenses of the four agents. Steer all of them further into the woods, away from the path, out of sight from watchful eyes. Once they are far enough into the forest, I put all of them to sleep. Withdraw, leaving them to be extracted by our team.
By the time I am back, fully aware of my surroundings, Carlos has returned to his station. I see his worried expression as I open my eyes. Smile down at him, watch him nod and turn to the monitor in front of him. I step forward and place a hand on his shoulder. “We’re going to be fine,” I say.
“Of course,” he says.
“Both of you,” I say, addressing Carlos and Walter together. “We do what we do, and I know it’s dangerous. But we do it very well. M.M.C. is not a threat unless we allow them to be. Now, they’ve pushed this whole thing too far. We need to try another approach.”
“Is that so.”
I turn to see Alexis standing in the doorway, Becky and Isobel on his flanks. “Thanks for coming, Alexis,” I say. “We’re going to conduct a little rescue operation. And we need your approval to go ahead.”
“I don’t want to know,” he says. “And I’ll be only too happy when Meredith is back at the reins of Field Ops. But if you and these other two reckless ladies on either side of me are really going out to poke the hornet’s nest, I want at least two backup squads on standby. And that, young lady, is an order.”
“Understood,” I say. “But don’t make them conspicuous. M.M.C. sees two crews heading towards their operations center and not only will they know we have it on our radar, but they will know we’re coming in.” I gesture towards Becky and Isobel. “The three of us, we can move without them watching. And we’re not going inside – just doing a pickup.”
“Fine,” Alexis says. “And we’re using the best shielding we have on all our vehicles. Maybe not like having Rebecca on site, but the closest approximation.”
“Approximation is right,” I say. “The real thing is an entirely different entity.”
“I will not argue with you on that,” Alexis says. I see the faint hint of a smile cross his face. “So what else? I know you never come to me unless you have multiple requests.”
I shoot him a puzzled look. “Really?”
“Really,” he says.
“Well, there was one other thing,” I say. “Two of our joint task force members, the M.M.C. side, were taken off-site. Carlos has them on his system. Wally is blocking signals. And I’ve taken the M.M.C. squad down. We need a pick-up team to bring them in.”
“We’re not bringing in any more M.M.C. agents,” Alexis says. “You want to start an all-out war with them, that’s the way to do it. This little subversion maneuver you put in place has backfired, and I know Janneke will be more than a little pissed. The slightest additional incentive is liable to send her into a frenzy of violence.”
“Alexis,” I say. “We’re going to take care of that. Part of our mission today is to set off so many internal alarms at M.M.C. that all they’ll be able to do is dig through their own dirty laundry for weeks. Whether she likes it or not, Janneke won’t have enough agents she can trust to take any kind of offensive action.”
I see the exasperation in Alexis’ expression, but he suppresses it. Lets out a long sigh. “Don’t even tell me,” he says. “Just so long as you keep her contained. But we pick up only those two task force members, not the M.M.C. agents that were holding them. Is that clear?”
“That will be enough,” I say. “For now.”
He grimaces. Turns back towards the Monitoring area, sees that all eyes are turned in his direction. “Is that clear?” he repeats.
Most of the faces hurriedly turn away, make a show of returning to their work. A few bolder ones smile as he stalks back to the elevator.
“Well I guess we have our green light,” I say.
“Isobel, we need to be close,” I say. “A location that those agents can easily find and access, once they leave the center.”
Isobel, driving, turns to me as I sit in the front passenger seat. “There’s a back entrance,” she says. “As well as a whole series of secret access points that I’m not supposed to know about.”
“Let’s go with the official back door,” I say. “Just in case our people can’t make their way to the more hidden routes.”
“Alright,” she says. “How close?”
I turn to Becky in the back seat of the car. “How close?” I repeat.
She shrugs. “Never gone so near such a concentration of M.E. power,” she says. “I have no idea how well my barriers will hold.”
I feel a flutter of fear run down my spine. Reach a hand back to her, and she takes it. “Just take care of shielding this car,” I say. “The three of us. I’ll do the rest.”
“And pull me in to help,” Isobel says. “Rebecca – don’t forget. I can help. Add strength to your barrier.”
“Let’s park about a block away,” I say. “Isobel you stop the car, link up with Becky, and you hold that wall. For at least a minute or two I can’t do anything to support you. But once I’m done inside M.M.C, I can bring the power. Alright?”
“Good,” Isobel says.
I look into Becky’s eyes, see the doubt lurking there. “Alright?” I say softly.
Becky nods. “We got this,” she says.
Another minute and we are parked in the darkness of a narrow alley just off Matheson Street. From our vantage point we can see the poorly lit storefront of a rundown copy shop which Isobel says is the rear entrance to M.M.C. As soon as I feel them link, ready to share the burden of blocking all energy into our space, hiding our location, I follow the familiar path through Becky’s wall and reach out to all the minds around me, begin drawing small amounts of energy from them. Slowly build my M.E. force, probing outwards for the barriers that must shield M.M.C. and its operations. At first, it is difficult to recognize them, they are so well integrated into the overall patterns of the area. But I persist. Eventually, notice the familiar signature of shields I have encountered in the M.M.C. agents I’ve dealt with. Follow that thread through, and inside. The entire operation opens wide, and I scan quickly for Nicole and Greg. As I had suspected they are under duress, forceful interrogation. There is no time to determine their status, although I sense resistance which means they are still aware and conscious. Instead I sweep wider, looking for signs of the changes I hoped to see in the allegiance patterns amongst the agents and personnel. And they are there. Doubts, uncertainties, misgivings. More pronounced, more widespread than I’d expected. But these are not my targets. I scan for minds that are still resolute in their purpose. The majority inside M.M.C, their anger and maliciousness reaching outwards, seeking a victim upon whom it can be unloaded. Amongst those minds – Janneke. And David.
It takes me a moment to recognize him for who he is. There is such malevolence in his mind, such a darkness in his soul. I catch my breath, grip Becky’s hand. But I cannot hesitate, not now. Cannot let my feelings, our shared past, even the presence of his sister who so desperately wants to help him, shake my resolve. Move purposely away from him, choose six other agents with evil in their hearts. Sense, in that moment, how difficult it will be for me to change them, all of them, at once. Draw in more power, a wider catchment area, feel the energy surge through me as I pour it forth, instantly breaching all their defenses and drilling, deep into their mental cores, uprooting all the indoctrination of years, obliterating the center that has been their whole purpose in life for so long. See them each stumble, falter in their actions as the sudden void appears in their minds. Leap back, address my energy towards heightening the suspicions, the uncertainties of those already on the road to losing their M.M.C. affiliation. And finally, to Janneke. Pry open her shields, plant the smallest seed of suspicion. That there are more, hiding within M.M.C. That these are, at this moment, taking some disruptive action. And the two she is interrogating – just the bait.
I know in a moment of insight that the idea flourishes in her brain, grows quickly to a conviction that she must act, now, to head off disaster. She leaves the interrogation room, and I quickly stun the remaining two staff. Link to Nicole and to Greg, give them the location of our car. Jump back to the street, the blackness of our shadowy alley. Quickly scan the area. Confirm that Becky and Isobel have kept us hidden.
“Back,” I say.
Isobel breathes out, releasing her focus. “Are they…”
“On their way,” I say. “And the seeds have been sown.” Then suddenly I feel, as before, that tickle of fear down my spine. Becky’s hand, still in mine, goes limp.
She is still, her face calm, eyes closed. I cannot sense her presence, even when I reach out with my mind. Panic seizes me and I scramble into the back seat. She is breathing, her pulse weak but steady. I shake her, pull her close, but she does not respond. Behind me Isobel lets out a startled sob, but in my anguish it barely registers. Then I feel something invade my mind. My M.E. shrinks back, dwindles to nothing as I sit there, holding my soulmate in my arms. As I wait, defenseless and powerless. As despair takes me and I slip slowly into darkness.