It was three months before Michael could come to London again. Meanwhile, the sky fell several times in Section One, although mostly in small chunks.
Walter became Nikita's Chicken Little.
"You can't let everybody schedule their own down time, Sugar. You'll lose control."
"They don't. They run it past me, and I schedule it."
"That and everything Operations and Madeline used to do."
"Not! We don't do torture any more, remember? And I haven't killed anybody since I got the job."
"Just get yourself a second-in-command, will you please?"
"I'm working on it."
"You can't do it all. You gotta learn to delegate!"
"That has to be the tenth time you've said that."
"Okay. Okay. I'll say this, though. You sure do look great lately." He glanced right and left, leaned across the counter, and muttered sotto voce: "All things considered." Smirk. Almost a leer, but not really. Reputation to uphold or not, this man had wept, holding her tenderly, when she told him her secret.
"Walter, sink the dirty-old-man routine, okay?" She glanced around and then, unobserved, smooched his cheek. "Guess what. I'm taken."
"Sugar, you been taken since the day you hit this place."
A few days after that conversation, three of her best young operatives had come to the Perch to inform her that her down time policy was too demanding. She had promptly put all three of them on close quarter standby for a week. When one of them had suggested that her response was approaching dictatorial, she had shot back, "Since when is this a democracy?"
"But it's not fair!"
"Spence, real life isn't fair, and this is Section."
After that, her down time policy was no longer a topic of conversation.
Missions came and went. The Casualty-to-Mission ratio spiked, filling her with dread, and then tapered off to what it had been when Operations was in charge. Other ratios and statistics flowed past her in an unending stream, all hissing for attention. The Group asked her for an annual budget proposal. She got behind in her administrative work, pulled an all-nighter, got behind again. What was left of the Collective descended rapidly from the high they were on after assassinating her father in broad daylight, fell on each other with tooth and claw and then self-destructed--producing three virtually leaderless splinter groups composed of thugs well-trained by their predecessors in the mechanics of terrorism, but not in strategy or even tactics. The result was total chaos beyond that faced by her predecessor in his worst nightmares.
"Relax, sugar," said Walter. "You're doing fine."
"When in doubt, punt," said Christopher--who, as an armchair covert strategist, was one terrific journalist.
"Get on top of it," said the Group. And she did--seeking advice from the leaders of the other sections (albeit largely to no avail), and even brainstorming with her own troops. By May, total chaos was reduced to mostly chaos, and mission success ratios began a slow climb back toward normal.
"What's normal?" Kelly asked over their desktop lunch one day.
"I'm not sure I remember. But our intel and Jason's numbers seem to be more and more accurately predictive, and my people are getting used to having me in charge even if they don't like it. It's a start."
But administratively, she was in over her head. Operations' personal daily records consisted of brief, cryptic jottings on the computer equivalent of the backs of envelopes, all piled into one directory with filenames that looked to have been created on the fly; her only clue to what each might contain was its filing date. Madeline's psych profiles, on the other hand, were masterpieces of detail, the files named according to a consistent naming convention that Nikita was able to deduce without difficulty. With relief and gratitude, she gave access to Kelly, who had worked as a psychotherapist for years before starting medical school in her early thirties. But the administrative tangle continued to plague her.
"Walter," she asked one day, "how can I access Adrian's daily records?"
"Ahhhhhhh...." Fascinated by what he was working on, Walter went silent.
"You were saying?"
"The backfiles. Get Jase to assign you a password." As she started to leave, he looked up. "What do you want with records that old?"
"A map. A compass. Perspective. A system. I don't really know."
"Operations kept records, didn't he?"
"It's a jungle in there."
"He was never into desk work." Walter turned back to his latest toy, and she went to find Jason.
Adrian's files were little better than her successor's; apparently he'd learned everything he cared to know about Section administrative record-keeping from her.
Resting her forehead on her hand, Nikita went doggedly from file to file and then, about to give up, came upon a disproportionately large file that refused to open. Unadorned filename, no extension. Recognizing traces of Section's encryption scheme, Nikita returned to Jason.
It took him almost ten minutes to decrypt the filename. "Man oh man, she fixed this so anybody who opened it really hadda wanna."
And memory spoke: "It was important that you show me you had the ability and the desire to contact me." Eerie thought. Her father and Adrian probably didn't even know each other.
The translated filename was Journal. The file content was not encrypted--freely available to any successor who wanted to read it badly enough to make the effort to open it.
"Can you find out if the filename's ever been decrypted before?"
Jason typed a series of characters. "Nope. It's clean."
"Thanks, Jason. I'll need to access it from home."
Brief additional keyboard activity. "Any time, ba--" He wore a lazy smile until his gaze met hers. "Yes, ma'am." He returned to his work, minus the smile.
The journal was not what Nikita had been looking for, but she spent an entire evening skimming and reading it. On the surface, the entries revealed little of Adrian's personal life, being confined to comments on her interaction with coworkers during the hours she was in Section, at Oversight, or at Center. But knowing some of the people referred to in it, Nikita was able to deduce how Adrian felt about them from what she chose to record. Fond of George. Hated Madeline. Alternately attracted to and repelled by Paul. Nothing new there, but still fascinating reading. Then she drew in her breath as she came upon yet another name she recognized.
"After the meeting, I dropped in on Philip to see how his work is coming along. He's even got a name for the thing. Calls it Veytoss. I told him that sounds like a pet peacock, and he actually chuckled. I'd just made the mistake of trying to discuss the compassionate exercise of authority with the Group and been all but sacked for it. So it was on my mind, and when he asked how the meeting had gone, I told him. I also told him how Paul had laughed in my face and George had scowled and lectured me when the subject came up with each of them. I was fed up, and Philip isn't the sort to carry tales. His comment was, 'What did you expect, old girl?' The man is surprisingly perceptive, all things considered. When I said as much, he smiled and gave that little shrug of his, then went on to say that it was well that I'd verbalized the concept with 'compassionate' as the adjective and 'authority' as the noun or I should probably have been tossed into the street. We argued a bit. He has little more idea of what I mean than the others do, but he's at least willing to listen. If he weren't so walled up, I might even call him friend."
Sitting cross-legged in the middle of her bed, Nikita stared down at the laptop, fighting the irrational idea that Adrian had written the passage for her. The compassionate exercise of authority. She had the computer scan the entire journal for that phrase, and retrieved one other passage in a portion she had only skimmed before.
"No one seems able to comprehend what I'm getting at, and it's such a simple thing. The compassionate exercise of authority. Paul laughed and said, "Catch more flies with honey? You can't be serious." George lectured me on how important it is for AlphaGroup to believe that I think like a man. One wonders what might become of Section if either of them were in charge of it."
More. Please. But there was no more.
And yet: As though it was written for me....
She searched on "Philip." Nothing but what she had already read. On "authority." Nothing more. On "compassion...."
"Compassion is so seductive. One so easily comes to believe that there must be a magic bullet, an answer to everything. If not love, then compassion? But one has to keep reminding oneself that Section could not survive by compassion alone. Aquinas wrote of substance and accident, what one might call noun and adjective. Compassion is the leavening agent, the accident, not the substance. Authority is the substance. One must just keep kneading it until it's flexible enough to rise to all occasions."
Nikita hit Find Again, and found only the end of the file.
But it wasn't the end of the file. Following the last visible line, there were several more where only an ellipsis appeared at the left margin.
Hidden text? She turned on hidden text.
"I don't know who you are. Perhaps I never shall. If you're reading this, I am dead or banished. You are probably in charge of Section One. If so, I hope that something I've written here may be whatever it is you've overcome obstacles to read. If not, perhaps I never found it. Or perhaps it's waiting to be found within you."
"I need your advice," she told Kelly at their regular meeting the next morning. "It's about the CTTF. They're not meshing, and I don't know why. Their missions have gone well, but when I meet with them, all they do is bicker. They even try to pick fights with me."
"Giving Mommie a hard time when Daddy's not around?"
"Oh, come on. They know better than that."
"What is it they should know better than? You and Michael were their first mentor-trainers. Team teaching, right? I'm guessing here, but there's a good chance they imprinted on you as a couple."
"They didn't know we were together."
"Huh. Everybody knew you were together."
"Well...okay. Let's say you're right. It kind of fits in with what I wanted to ask you about. I've been wondering if I'm going too easy on them. Sometimes it's hard to know when to...to exercise authority and when to be compassionate. Jasmine is sick, and they're all such kids."
"Kids with guns." Animals with guns.... "Could you be giving them mixed signals? From what you tell me, your group debriefs sound more like group therapy sessions. You are not qualified to be doing that, Nikita, and it could blow up in your face. You're not their momma either. You're their boss. Act like it."
"But they need--"
"They need to know who's in charge."
"Keep a tight rein...."
"Okay. Let me think about it."
"Think fast." Kelly's gaze moved restlessly around her office. "Let's get this done, okay? Running a cross between an ER and a research facility makes for a helluva lot of administrivia. I'm swamped."
"I'm bored out of my skull." Bravado. Guilt. And somewhere below all that, defiance and a whiff of fear.
Oh, Kelly. "I'm thinking about making Rick head of Medlab. He's a good doctor. He thrives on adrenaline rushes and taking risks, and that makes him very good at emergency medicine. What makes him unique is that he also thrives on documenting his every move."
Kelly's face had gone still. Then, quietly: "You'll have to watch him." Her assistant was an addicted day-trader who had robbed and killed, unable to wait even long enough to embezzle what he needed to support his habit.
"No. You'll have to watch him. I want you to be my second."
Expression totally blank: "You mean...what Madeline was?"
"No way. That's the whole point."
She had not known what to expect, and still Kelly surprised her. She simply gazed back, frowning faintly but eyes alight. "This is gonna be a whole other something, right? You and me--we do it our way, right?"
"Right. So, do we have anything to negotiate?"
"The plants have to go. I don't know why, but they really creep me out."
"They're gone." Nikita shivered. "They were all dying, and I didn't have time to try and save them."
"Save plants? Girl, you got a one-track mind."
"So what else is new?"
They both grinned as they high-fived each other, and then Kelly's gaze drifted over Nikita's shoulder, her smile softening. "Hey."
Nikita did not have to turn and look to know who stood in the office doorway.
"I have to go." She rose, choking on envy, the longing for Michael's presence so strong that her throat ached with it. "Hi, Chris. Later, Kelly." Slipping past Christopher, she walked steadily toward the Perch, chin high. If any operatives noticed and remembered later, they would dismiss it as simple jealousy of a former boyfriend's new relationship. Cover story intact. More than intact: if her child's father were with someone else in Section, there would be no danger of the two of them going rogue together when their child was born.
When she reached her sanctum, she turned it dark and sat down with her back against the wall, arms around her drawn-up knees. Luc had taken up residence immediately beneath her rib cage, and her expanding waistline was as yet the only part of her figure that truly revealed her condition. Duplicating half her wardrobe one size larger and gradually phasing out the other half was buying her time, and also making her clothing fit more comfortably; she hadn't been able to sit like this in trousers for seven years. Comfortable was also comforting, and the darkened room, the light filtering through the window and glowing from the readout screens, and her own thoughts eased her down into calm.
Only two days until they were together again, and he'd promised this time. The other times he hadn't promised....
Five days before her April trip to London, he had sent:
"I'm needed more here. SV's gr saw end of O plus numerous others. Assumed end of A next. Suppressed for weeks. Now all hell is loose. Research post-traumatic stress disorder.
"I am there with you always."
And in May: "Next time. I promise."
Only a few more days until next time. If he wasn't coming, he would have said so by now.
She rose, turned on the lights, and got back to work.
"You always were a tight-ass bitch." As he spoke to Jasmine, Darwin's voice was light, languid, teasing, but with an undertone of something else far less pleasant. For a week after being informed of her illness, he had treated her like a fragile oriental princess, as had Trent and Claire. But within a month, the four of them were again sparring almost constantly when they were not on a mission together, and Jasmine's precipitous dive into the depths of self-pity had exacerbated the situation. Now Trent fired at holographic hostiles from a treadmill inside the geodesic globe where Jurgen had once retrained Nikita. Darwin, Jasmine, and Claire were taking a break, sprawled on the balcony floor behind Nikita as she watched Trent over the railing.
"And you always were a slimeball," Jasmine responded tightly, making no attempt to disguise her pervasive unhappiness. Darwin was her favorite target, but no one was exempt from a tongue-lashing these days.
Claire murmured impatiently, "Give it a rest, Jazz. It's not his fault, okay?"
"I'm just so sick and tired--."
"That's right, cupcake." Now Darwin's voice was cold. "Keep reminding us of how sick y--."
Nikita had not raised her voice or turned around, but Darwin stopped in mid-sentence. At least there was some respect there to salvage. A word from her would still silence any of them--for a few minutes. And then it would just begin again. "Trent, take a break. There's something we all need to talk about together." She turned from the railing...and caught Claire staring at her waistline as though she had never seen one before. Damn. Claire looked up at her face, smiled faintly, and then looked away.
With all four of them sprawled at her feet, she hesitated, considered alternatives, and then squatted down, still on her feet but with her knees bent and her thighs at right angles to the floor. Trent's dark face shone with sweat and impatience; he was on a fitness kick and disliked being interrupted during any physical workout. Jasmine was close to tears, as she almost always was these days. Darwin lay flat on his back, hands clasped beneath his neck, one knee up with the other ankle balanced across it, to all appearances thoroughly bored. Claire's mouth was half full of the large candy disk attached to the stick she held in her hand, her eyes continually straying toward Nikita's middle.
On second thought...
Rising quickly to her feet, Nikita drew her personal weapon, a small silver pistol, from her jacket pocket and fired once at the floor in their midst. She had anticipated having to resort to this, and had alerted Section security to the possibility. The gun was equipped with a silencer, so all that was discernible to anything other than electronic monitoring equipment was a loud THUMP. But the other four each sprang to a crouch within the same second, hands going for absent weapons checked in after their last mission.
"HEL-lo! Have I got your attention now?" When they merely stared up at her, she put the gun away but remained standing this time.
Darwin began, "What the fuck--"
"This," said Nikita in her heaviest, most intimidating growl, "is a workplace, Darwin. In the workplace, you don't say 'What the fuck' and you don't call anybody a bitch. Am I getting through?" Darwin nodded, silent for once. Much more gently: "Jasmine, we already hurt for you. You don't have to keep reminding us to do it 24/7." Jasmine's eyes were huge, almost round. The leavening agent, Nikita reminded herself. Not the dough. Again she hardened her voice. "Trent, sink the program you're working on that's supposed to blow all the security locks on Section's perimeter. If you'd pulled that stunt six months ago, it would have gotten you canceled, and you know what? It still could." Trent opened his mouth, but at Nikita's "Yes?" he closed it again. "Claire, get rid of the candy. It's not your 'only vice.' It's an affectation of innocence. Mine was bubble gum. Yours is lollipops. Lose 'em."
Incredulous, Claire whispered, "Bubble gum?"
"Just do it." Nikita went on, explaining in detail how things were going to be different from now on. Nobody moved. Nobody else spoke. At the end, there were no questions.
"We meet in Systems in ten minutes. Dismissed."
Ten minutes later, she found her four charges huddled around one Systems work station as though they had never been anything but bosom buddies. As she approached them, she realized that for the moment none of them was aware of her presence.
Claire was the center of attention, but as Nikita paused, trying to decide how to handle the premature announcement that Claire was obviously making, Darwin murmured, deadpan: "Please pass...the sugar."
The effect was instantaneous.
Jasmine: "Shut up, Darwin!" But she was laughing. Jasmine was laughing.
Claire, genuinely confused: "Say again?"
Trent: "Put a sock in it, man!" But he was laughing too.
Jasmine leaned over and whispered something to Claire, who nodded, grinning. "Ah, but of course!" And all four cracked up at once.
"What's this about sugar?" Nikita asked.
They all startled perceptibly. Darwin said, "Uh! Um. Ah," and seemed to run out of noises to make. No one else said anything.
"Claire, I wish you could have kept that to yourself. Now I'm going to have to trust all of you with something you shouldn't know yet." Pulling a rolling chair over so that she could sit near them, she gave her second prepared explanation of the day--this one an abstracted version of the one she had been working over in her head for months in preparation for its future presentation to AlphaGroup. Long before she finished, it was obvious that nobody was laughing anymore. Nobody was even smiling. Trent, Claire, and Jasmine were giving her their polite attention, but Darwin had refused to look at her from the moment she'd first mentioned Christopher. Too late, she realized what she had done to all of them.
Fool, she told herself, trying to stay focused. Kelly had warned her, and instead of listening, she had just told four not-quite-grownup kids that Mommy had cheated on Daddy right after his last visit home.
But it was done, and she did not know what her alternative had been.
"So I'm asking all of you to keep this dark until I tell the Group," she finished. "I have no choice but to trust you."
Jasmine said quietly, "Nikita, we didn't save your life so that Center could take it away." They all nodded solemnly--even Darwin, who still would not look at her.
She thanked them, and they went silently to their work stations.
For an hour she moved from one to the other, giving them guidance on how to create a mission sim from a previously prepared template, today walking them through the morphing of standard primitive shapes into heads, lampshades, clock towers, paths leading over hills into trees. Jasmine, Claire, and Trent continued to listen politely and asked polite questions. Darwin continued to type when she drew up a chair to beside him. "Thanks," he said. "I don't need any help."
"Mind if I sit here for a little while?"
"Yeah, I mind." Still typing. But the scenario he was creating made no sense. Turning her eyes from the screen, she saw tears standing in his.
"Compassion is the leavening...."
"If in doubt, punt."
"Darwin." He looked down at the keyboard. "Look at me, Darwin." He stopped typing and looked past her left shoulder. Slowly, deliberately, she raised her right hand into his line of vision and gave him a thumbs-up sign. "Don't believe everything you hear. Not even from me."
When he finally raised his eyes to hers, they were still moist. "Why do you trust me?"
"Because you care."
"I don't care! Why the f--why should I care?"
"I'm not sure."
He stared blindly at the screen for a while, and then, finally, whispered, "Michael's the only one in my entire life who never let me get away with one freakin' thing."
"Well, here's somebody who just got in line behind him."
"I noticed." He looked straight at her for the first time in well over an hour. "Take care, okay?" His eyes were clear now, but suddenly hers weren't. "If there's anything any of us can do, just give a holler."
"The others still think--the more people who know--"
"I'll care of the others, Teach. You just take care of you and--uh--"
"No shi--uh." He was grinning now. "That's French, right?"
"How could you tell?"
"The way you said it." Still grinning: "Cool. That is so cool."
"So you were right," she told Kelly when next they met over lunch. "So how do you feel about Darwin's calling me 'Teach'?"
"How do you feel about it?"
"I'm not sure. I think it might be okay, but...I'm not sure."
"Wait and see, then." Distracted, Kelly waved a long-fingered, pink-palmed hand toward Nikita's repast of microwaved healthy choices. "I approve, by the way. Yogurt and an apple might be enough to keep you all day, but it's not enough for the kid."
"You mean Luc."
"Ah. But Week 16 was pretty early for conclusive ultrasound."
"To quote Helen: 'Not shy about it, is he?' We'll check it again next weekend, though."
"You look good."
"I feel good."
"So be good and let Rick and me take over."
"No records in Section until I go public."
"Isn't it about that time?"
"Might be. Claire's catching on made me work through it again. After I get back, I think."
Kelly shook her head, but she was obviously resigned to what they both saw as a compromise. "Have you felt the baby move yet?"
"I think so, but I'm not an expert. Kelly--there's something I want to talk to you about before I see Michael again."
In the course of her Michael-mandated research into PTSD, she had perused and mulled over a list of signs and symptoms that had disturbed her. Then, on a hunch, she had done a search on Luc Samuelle, date-limited to the decade between 1974 and 1984. The results had disturbed her even more, but not having seen Michael since March, she had had no opportunity to talk to him about them.
The newspaper coverage of the deaths of Luc Samuelle and his wife, Patrice, had been quite detailed, appropriate to the stature of its subject in the community. As a young child, Michael's father had been active in the French underground during World War II. In the period during which her own father had been an evacuee to the English countryside, Luc le premier had been a pint-sized courier between two very active resistance groups. Parentless since early in the war, he had learned quickly to survive by his wits, and had acquired an extensive reputation as a diminutive covert operative before his tenth birthday. During the post-war period, he had grown up to become a renowned police detective, his specialty the hunting down and apprehension of urban serial killers.
"As soon as I read that," she told Kelly, "I wanted to stop. I think I knew what I was going to find out, and I didn't want to. But I had to."
One fall afternoon in 1982, ten-year-old Marie Samuelle was taken to a hospital suffering from acute appendicitis. Later that evening, having come through an emergency appendectomy with flying colors, Marie said goodnight to her parents for the last time. Then they and her brother Michael, age 17, left her in her hospital bed to sleep a healing sleep, thereby enabling her to escape her share of the horror that was to befall the other three in the course of that interminable night.
"It was a pair of very sick twins." Nikita spoke softly into the hush of the office where Kelly had gotten up and closed the door. "Michael's father was on their trail, but he hadn't caught up with them yet. They wanted to show the whole city what would happen to anyone who did catch up with them. The paper said that after they were done with his parents, the twins told Michael to go and tell everybody what he'd seen. He couldn't, though. When the articles I read were written, he still couldn't speak at all, and that was three or four days later."
"It even made the papers in the States. I didn't remember the family name until now. Did you read any other articles?"
"You want to hear it all?"
"The twins had a thing about authority figures. They'd beat them senseless and then inflict multiple stab wounds to their heads and faces. And some people still believe in God." Nikita said nothing. "There wasn't even a trial. They just locked 'em up in the nearest mental hospital."
"He still has nightmares. He doesn't sleep more than two or three hours at a stretch, and he's hyper vigilant--"
"Whoa!" Kelly had been shading her eyes with one hand, but now she reached out swiftly with both hands and grabbed Nikita's almost hard enough to hurt. "Just stop right there, you hear me?"
"But if he has PTSD like Adam--"
"You are not a therapist, and two or three symptoms do not make a syndrome! DAMN! You're the best example I ever saw of 'a little knowledge is a dangerous thing.' Did you ever see anybody with PTSD?"
"Well...no, I guess not."
"I guess not. Actually, it's a wonder you haven't in this place. Look, Nikita--Michael not only functions, he functions superbly and has for all of his adult life. He doesn't do drugs. He doesn't get drunk. When he lost Adam the first time--did he get drunk? Okay. And he's never sick? There is no way this man is still a victim of PTSD if he ever was."
"He didn't function emotionally for a long time. Especially after Simone."
"Most of the people in here are emotionally dysfunctional. Did Michael stand out all that much?"
"Only as a leader. Everybody respected him even if they didn't like him. He always got the job done and pretty much always kept his whole team alive."
"Okay. Why did he kill hostiles? I'm not talking about orders. Why did he kill? To get revenge? To hurt them?"
"To stop them. He stops them and then he walks away."
"Without looking back."
"Never looks back."
"Do you have to kill them to stop them?"
"If you want to survive, you don't leave hostiles alive on the floor behind you."
"He doesn't enjoy it? Okay. Does he not enjoy it?"
"Most of the time I don't think he has feelings about it one way or the other."
"What does he enjoy doing?" Nikita opened her eyes wide and gazed back innocently. "Okay, okay. What else does he enjoy doing?"
"Being with Adam. Sailing. Walking on the beach. We went camping once. Lived in a tent for eleven days. He...he thrives in quiet places. He talks to me there. One afternoon he watched some beavers building a dam for two or three hours."
"Didn't you watch them too?"
"Some. I mostly watched him. He's...very watchable."
"For two or three hours?"
"Well, we were talking."
Kelly made a sound somewhat reminiscent of Helen's Quite. "Whatever. This is not a sick man you're describing. He's probably dysfunctional in some ways, yes. I've barely spoken to him and only observed him in passing, so I'm guessing here. But my guess is we're talking lots of scar tissue, not open wounds. Do you know anything about what he was like before his parents died?"
"I might. He lost his memory once, for three days. He wasn't who he is."
"Did he regress?"
"Might have, yes. He seemed very...young."
"He could have been. Didn't have much chance, though. He was too scared to be happy. But he was so...different."
"From what he was before that? And since? Well, I can only guess again. If he had seventeen years of good life before the trauma, that might explain how he could grow enough scar tissue without therapy. Over time. He's not invulnerable, though.
"The articles I read said something about helping the person to relive the experience."
"Don't...even...think about it. There lies Pandora's box. Promise me you won't try anything you're not trained to do."
"But what if he wants to tell me about it?"
"Listen--if he wants to tell you. But don't push, not even a little. Promise."
"I promise." It was almost 1400. "I shouldn't have stayed so long."
Kelly grinned. "You da boss. Besides, I didn't have anything to do this afternoon except shitwork."
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