Instructor Prescott leaned back in his chair and took a good long look at the woman who had just walked in through his door. She was Elizabeth Braddock, preferably addressed as Lee, and a roaring success to him personally. Five months ago, someone had pulled her out of modelling and recruited her to STRIKE, on the basis that she was an accomplished telepath, and willing to serve her country. He had had his doubts about her, a typical rich brat with stars in her eyes, telling him she would do her best. Now she stood there, five pounds heavier, all muscle, attentive, but not intimidated, and fit for anything or anyone he could throw at her. He had partnered her with Chris Stanton, a woman known for skimpy clothing, smoking and straight shooting. The unlikely combination had worked.
"Sir, I've had a vision", she said. "It concerns my partner, Chris Stanton, and whatever we're going to do tonight. She's going to get killed."
Telepaths were weird. Everyone knew that. One of their best, Tom, claimed that he saw weird things in the trees, and another had had to cover her walls with icons or she couldn't sleep. Someone had pulled them down for a joke and the girl, all ninety pounds of her, had freaked and gone for his throat. Afterwards, she had been very sorry, offered to pay for the prosthetic eye and all, but she had been discharged anyway. This was something else, though. Lee had been able to pass for normal for a long time, and that was something you didn't do by playing Cassandra.
"As I recall, you do not have any pre-cognitive abilities. It is not in our files. Look, I've known Stanton for a long time and she knows how it goes. If she wants the night off, she files a request and I deny it."
"Sir, she'll die. I saw her death. I'll go, alone or with any back-up. Please pull her off the mission."
She seemed close to tears, which wasn't what he wanted. Women. It wasn't that they couldn't run and climb, because they could, and there were pills to correct their hormonal fluctuations, but it was the way they manipulated men. Female tears could reduce any man to a puddle. He had been married, so he knew all about it. He made his voice gentle.
"Lee, the death of a partner is a common nightmare. We all dream of that."
Not to mention that that particular nightmare came true for most of them, sooner or later, but he didn't want to get into that with her.
"It wasn't a dream, dammit! Sir. It was right now, when we were running the sims, and I looked at her and I knew. I saw it. Like a great black cloud."
He noted that she was slightly crosseyed, probably from working the sims too long. You could see all kinds of things if you did that. He made a mental note to ask Tom how many sims he had been running lately. Clouds and things in the trees. Right.
"Have you told her about this vision of yours?"
"No. Please don't, sir."
The girl had some sense, at least. Telling people they were going to die and when, could ruin whole squads. There was that boy from Eastbourn, with a real funny name, who could tell in what way you would die, nice kid, but not too bright. They kept him sedated most of the time. Should eliminate him, really, he was that bad on morale.
"Of course I won't. This is nonsense, and nothing you should worry your partner with. However, if you feel really bothered by this, I could reassign you. This is a one-time favour, do you understand?"
"Yes, sir. I'll take reassignment, sir."
"Then you and Chris are going to a deserted pub, called "The Raven and the Cockerel", around eleven tonight. We want the place secured. The mission is low-priority, low-grade risk. Discuss logistics with Wilson. Now get the hell out of here."
"Yes, sir. Thank you, sir."
She looked much happier as she left, he thought. And why not? She believed in what she had told him. The tests had shown that she was incapable of constructing an elaborate lie.
As for the mission, if the so-called vision was a fluke, it might be the first sign that Lee was getting unreliable. Telepaths did that sometimes. A certain eccentricity was to be expected and accepted, but STRIKE had standards. On the other hand, if she did possess some degree of pre-cognitive abilities, STRIKE had better know about that, too. And while Chris Stanton was a crack-shot, she was also a flatscan and replaceable. He read a few more medical reports to be sure of that.--
"Hey, Lee, the old man give you a bad time?"
Chris Stanton took her boots off the dining table at the cafeteria, as her partner approached. Two waitresses were whispering in the background, unnerved by the way Chris kept loading and unloading her gun, while looking the other way. Or perhaps it was the whistling that got to them. Chris was uncharacteristically caught without either cigarrettes or gum, and had to make do with terrible, off-key sounds, to terrorise her surroundings. She was small, with tiny hands and feet, dark hair cropped short and an outrageous way of dressing. At the same time, though, she maintained an aura of incorruptible innocence, much like a kitten. She was extremely attractive to both women and men.
"Nothing but the usual moaning and bitching. You know the drill."
Indeed Chris would know the drill, since she had been brought up in an Army family, gone to military school, and ended up in undercover work. Which meant STRIKE, these days, so undercover that it was borderline illegal. No one had matched her track record until Elizabeth joined the force, but Chris didn't seem to mind that.
"Yeah, right. All set for tonight, then?"
The first time Elizabeth met Chris, she had been dumbfounded. To describe Chris's clothes as skimpy wasn't even close. She wore something that looked like a blue lacquer swimsuit, with a red sash at the waist. To this, she had tied blue bands around her legs, sometimes even around her arms. It made Elizabeth blush there and then, and get furious with herself for being such a prude. Chris wasn't bothered by any of this, she laughed her light, contagious laughter that seemed so much younger than herself, and told her not to worry, the blue stuff was armour, she liked to wear it, and it was kinda funny to see the men react.
Elizabeth swallowed and Chris took a closer look. Worried.
"You alright? You space out in the middle of physical, then decide you gotta see the boss..."
Spacing out wasn't quite the word for what she'd done, Elizabeth thought wryly. Chris was being polite. Totally fucking up their scores in free-fight, by simply pulling her partner off the floor in mid-simulation, was more like it. Chris had every right to be mad. Most of the guys and girls Elizabeth had partnered with before would have been livid, but Chris was different that way. Perhaps failing the course wasn't that a big deal to her. They'd find the time to make up for the mistake later. Or, more likely, it was just Chris. And it was also like Chris to shrug her pretty shrug before the silence became embarrassing and say:
"Well, I won't nag. I'm fine, you're fine and the guy I'm taking to dinner tonight is totally gorgeous. Bye, Lee."
As if she had not a care in the whole world.--
"Sense anyone?" Chris asked through the link.
"No. Doesn't mean there isn't anyone there, though."
"I'll keep that in mind."
Elizabeth could barely make out Chris's silhouette, as her partner perched on the fire escape six floors up. The so-called great plan, one going in upstairs and the other one going in from below had seemed much more appealing before they reached the actual place. This place was dead. No traffic, not even any drunks ambling along. And the feeling of impending doom wouldn't go away. She tried to tell herself that it was the deserted pub itself that got to her, door swinging in the wind, bar furniture broken, but she couldn't quite pull it off. She touched the flechette gun at her hip, felt the comfortable weight of it and tried to focus.
Elizabeth had anticipated the words, and the familiar jolt of terror and exhilaration shot through her veins, when her body carried her over the street and inside the building. She was taken out in less than five seconds.--
....and she woke. The dark was edged with luminous colours. She got to her hands and knees, and saw, stunned, how the red rain beat down on her hands. Her flechette gun was gone. Alright. She crawled forward, one hand on the pavement, the other in the gutter. It was wet, very wet, and she had been lying there, for how long, she had no idea. Water and gravel stung her palms and knees. There was a building hum in her head and the asphalt, covered with moisture seemed to shift and move under her gaze. She crawled on.
Instinct led her, when telepathy could not. The subconscious memory of a fire escape. Chris lay face down at the foot of the stairs, an arm tucked under her head, as if she had fallen asleep recently. The hum grew louder. Elizabeth touched the cropped hair, the cold cheek, saw the head loll back. Saw for the first time the small puncture hole in the leather jacket, a hole with its edges blackened and burned. Laser gun. No armour would have stopped it. Not the blue skimpy armour, not the bullet-proof vest and the kevlar bands trussed over it. Elizabeth saw her own hands turn the body around, searching for the ugly exit wound, feeling their way beneath the jacket and the armour. Except there was no armour, only a thin silk shirt.
And then she heard the sound of sirens starting up.--
Instructor Prescott stood, hands in his pockets, and watched the maintenance crew bag the body and take it away for disposal. The rain would wash away the bloodstains and any other sign of the fight and no one would have seen or heard anything. It was that kind of neighbourhood. By the time rumours reached the ears of Scotland Yard, no evidence would be left, and STRIKE would have covered its tracks, twice and thrice. Every investigation would peter out. He'd made a couple of phone calls to make sure. An ugly business it was, and it had cost him one agent already. Surely, hundreds of lives were lost yearly in the labs or in the field, mostly worthless lives, but he did feel vexed about the way this had happened.--
Elizabeth hadn't expected her instructor to have the guts to come up and see her. At least he had not brought any flowers.
"Sorry about Chris", he said, sitting down heavily at her feet.
She stared at him as hard as she could. Which wasn't very hard, since her concussion made two of him.
"You didn't reassign us, you ass-hole", she said through tight lips. "You killed her."
"No, I didn't reassign you, I figured you could take care of yourself. Both of you. Don't blame me because you messed up a simple op. And, no, I didn't kill Chris. That sniper didn't, either."
Once she had believed what this man told her. It felt like years ago. She knew better now, God, she knew better. He would say anything to make her comply.
And did that word really come out of her mouth? She had thought it many times, but couldn't recall ever saying it. Blue-blooded, toffy-nosed girlie. Bred right. Fuck all that.
"The autopsy showed a congenital heart defect. It would probably have killed her in a year or two, anyway. It didn't show up on any scan we did."
He'd lie and get away with it. Forge medical records, no doubt, and she wasn't that kind of intel, she didn't know computers well enough to find what he had altered. Damn him to hell.
"Would it have mattered to you if it had?"
"Probably not", he admitted, "but when the sniper shot at her, she was dead or dying already. Massive heart failure. There was nothing anyone could have done. So you see, you were right. Her time was up. It comes out the way it's written."
And now he had the nerve to smile at her. It was the happy-end kind of smile. The fatalist bullshit smile and, while she had seen it before, she had never disliked it quite as much.--
Chris hadn't left much. The clothes in the locker looked sad and decadent, now that Chris' personality didn't rub off sweetness and sexiness on them, and the shoes were worn. No books, no magazine subscriptions to be cancelled. Elizabeth left the weaponry to the gun shop. Most of it was in mint condition, and she knew that she'd never be a good enough shot to use a small handgun on a mission. There were no letters and no will. Chris didn't have any family left. The last one to go had been a brother, she didn't remember the name, but she remembered thinking it was a really funny one.
The armour was in a box under the bed. All kinds of armour, ceramic, plastic, light-weight metal, even an old-fashioned armour shirt with small pieces of bone sewn onto deerskin. There were metal enhanced mesh gloves, shin guards, iron knuckles, wrist and knee protections. There were at least two sets of full body armour. On the top of the box was the blue armour, draped carelessly over a bullet-proof vest.
"Why?" Elizabeth whispered, and uselessly, because she did understand why, in a very strange, but clear way, she understood why Chris never did care about going with strange men, walking alone in dark alleys at night, doing the brave and foolish things that pissed off all the instructors.
She must have known. Somehow she must have known that time was running out, and she had put off her armour, telling herself that it didn't matter which way she went, and trusting Elizabeth to hold her own. A narrow-minded, selfish, egoistical reason, a reason kept to herself. And what if Elizabeth had told her about the vision? Would she have gone on the mission, or would she have had a last night out, to kiss herself goodbye? Would she have taken her last breath in bed with that gorgeous guy, instead of falling off a fire escape with a hole through her chest? Elizabeth thought she knew the answer to that, and her hand closed tightly over the blue body armour.--
Inspector Prescott knew a lot of things when he saw them, and one of the things he knew especially well was the look of an agent who had been ruined. Or an agent who was dead. In Lee Braddock's case, he wasn't sure which she was.
She had left, after cleaning out Chris Stanton's locker. She hadn't turned up at the debriefing or at the investigation, who had tried their damndest to pin the blame on him, but hadn't succeeded. He had the autopsy report. He had Lee's statement about her vision. As for the operation; well, he'd almost managed to write it off as a test of Lee's pre-cog abilities, and made it sound as if Stanton was in on it. And she could have been, he reminded himself. It had been up to Lee, all along. Funny that he always thought of her as Lee.
She was dressed for the cocktail party on the terrace, a white velvet dress that displayed her broad shoulders and ample bosom. As she slowly swung around to face him, he realised that she had been drinking. Her balance was off. She didn't offer her hand.
"The Institute would like to know if you're coming back."
Which was true, but that could have been handled by mail. He had wanted to see her, and now he had. Ruined or dead, or maybe both.
"No", she said, tonelessly.
"Don't blame yourself", he told her, because he wanted to get out of there. A whole damned Manor, no less, with servants and jet-set guests. It made him nervous as hell.
"I don't", she said, with unexpected clarity of thought, "I blame you. I'm going to blame you for the remaining hour of your life. You see, I had another vision. And a letter from a man with a really funny name."
And then she laughed. It was Chris Stanton's laugh, light and bright, only evil, which Chris had never been.--
Whenever the darkness took her, she was back in the little cubicle. Chris was in the upper bed, reading by pen-light, trying to figure how many steps you could take where, what angles would make you visible, in the building they were about to take in the morning. She'd tap the pen against her teeth, when she calculated, fast and accurate, and never by comp. Elizabeth would wait until the pen-light clicked off, then say into the dark:
"Love you, Chris."
And the answer would come back, definite and absolute as the sun rising every morning:
"Love you too, Lee."FIN