As Told by Dakota Sue
Mr. Archer hauled himself out of the sedan with some effort, leaning heavily on his cane, and looked over what I supposed was now my crew as we also extricated ourselves from the vehicles. He pursed his lips faintly and then glanced over at an aide, who promptly held out several plain manila envelopes.
“Now orientation begins,” he said. “I believe . . . most of you have no residence in the City proper, so we have taken the liberty of assigning housing.”
I took the envelope he handed me and tore at the flap, succeeding in giving myself a paper cut as it opened. There were what looked like several sets of papers, folded, and some heavier things that clanked together at the bottom as I shook it. Remembering old television programs, I muttered, “This message will self-destruct in ten seconds . . .”
Archer continued speaking. “This is all your relevant housing information, along with keys and debit cards that will enable you to access your pay. In addition, we’ve provided you with documentation for a cover ‘job’; advisors for Stronghold Security.”
I pulled out one sheaf of papers and examined it.
“You are to report here for duty weekdays at 0800 hours, however you are also on call during your off-duty hours if it so happens that we require your services.” His tone managed to convey that he thought it unlikely at best. “You will not receive any field assignments until you’ve completed your training to my satisfaction.”
“All right, then, I guess I’ll see you guys tomorrow,” I said. Then I thought about my new position and decided I’d better demonstrate some initiative. “Wait, hang on. Everyone show me your packets.” Q showed me his name on the outside of the envelope and grinned. “Very funny. Come on, I just want to write down addresses and phone numbers, since theoretically I’m supposed to keep you yahoos in line.”
Everyone looked, briefly, mutinous, but then Finn offered me his papers with a shake of his head. I occupied myself writing for several moments. “As for me, I’m at . . . um . . . 2147 Brower Street, Riverside.”
Finn looked over at Nat. “Where did you end up? I got stuck over in Southside.”
“Me too. Want to share a cab?”
I looked at Archer. “Anything else for us?” I hesitated. “Sir?”
“Not until tomorrow. Good evening.” He turned and limped away.
Nat spoke up again, playing with her hair idly. “You know, I could use a pizza. Anyone interested in pizza before we head to our respective condos?”
“If anyone wants to save on cab fare, I’ve got my ride parked in the ramp,” Finn added.
I winced. I wanted a bed so badly it almost hurt to even think about going anywhere else, but I fought the urge and said, “I could probably stay awake for a few more hours.” Within minutes I was sitting in the back of Finn’s SUV, grimly wondering how much longer this day was going to drag on. By the time he pulled up to the pizza place, I was nearly asleep; I opened the door and headed inside.
“Hi, welcome to . . .”
“Five,” I announced.
The hostess blinked but was not put off. “Five it is!”
I contemplated the menu solemnly, trying to decide whether I was too hungry to sleep or too tired to eat. Q nudged me after a moment and I looked up at the server, who was apparently waiting on me. “I’ll just have some spaghetti.” She smiled and disappeared.
My mind focused slightly as Finn began speaking seriously, “Anyone else pondering the ramifications of this new ‘assignment’?”
Q shrugged. “At this point, it’s nice to have a job at least. Helps me get back into the swing of things. You?”
“It’s better than a detention facility.”
“Or working in a lab for the rest of your life,” Nat added. “Oh, that’s right, I burned down the lab. Whoops.”
“Accidentally or . . .?” Q said with a querulous expression.
“Yes accidentally. I didn’t have a grasp on my”--Nat waggled her fingers suggestively-- “capabilities.”
“Detention facility?” I asked Finn.
“I was only there for a debriefing. Don’t worry, I’m relatively sane.”
“Only relatively,” remarked Durance.
“Hm, well, I apologize for today,” Nat continued. “I was off my game. I didn’t really do anything to help. I told Archer I’d rather be let go than be the weak link or something like that.”
“Weak link? You jumped in, just like everyone else, and didn’t quit until it was over. Life’s like that sometimes.”
Q nodded. “Exactly. Better to shoot badly than run away and leave your wingman alone. At least then you can say it was suppressing fire.”
Our drinks finally put in an appearance and I sucked down half a glass of Coke in one long draught, hoping the caffeine would help keep me alert. It burned all the way down my throat and in my stomach. “So, if I understand this right, you are all from other agencies and got assigned here?”
“I suppose,” Durance offered.
“No one is really here because they want to be here?”
“Someone has to pay the maintenance fees,” Durance replied again.
I looked at him. “Was all this a voluntary, um, transformation?”
He made a noise. “No.”
I shook my head and played with my straw, thinking hard. This was starting to look like a really tough gig.
“And you, Sue? Why are you here?” Q asked.
“I got talked into it because the country is going to hell in a handbasket.”
“So you decided to join Uncle Sam and?”
“I’m still not sure whether it was a good idea, but I couldn’t just sit on the sidelines any more. I’m looking to find out what’s gone wrong and deliver unto it a mighty ass-kicking, I guess.”
Finn snorted. “Kind of a lofty goal, isn’t it? ‘Changing the world’ and all that?”
“I don’t have middle gears. It’s everything or nothing.”
Thankfully, the food arrived and I spent some time picking at my spaghetti and pondering my predicament. It’s bad enough being a truck driver and an idealist, the worst that will happen to you is that people will laugh when you spout off some particularly half-baked theory. But being an idealist in an undercover military organization, surrounded by pragmatists, that’s another story. Being the leader of said pragmatists . . . my stomach began to churn unpleasantly; the longer I thought the worse it got. I realized I just had to get out of there for a while.
Immediately on the heels of that realization my body took over and I shot to my feet, banging one knee inelegantly on the table as I pulled out some cash, I didn’t check to see how much, and dropped it on the table. “Sorry, folks, I’ve had a long day and I think I need some sleep,” came out as one long rush as I turned and walked out of the restaurant.
It didn’t take me long to realize that I wasn’t entirely certain where I was, much less where I was going, so I pulled out my new cell phone (courtesy of AEGIS, of course) and beeped for a while. Then I gave up and asked someone for directions.
Riverside turned out to be a fairly nice part of town, just off the (surprise) river. I stopped in a park to reorient and contemplated a massive bronze statue for a while. It occurred to me that I’d see this gentleman somewhere before, so I read the plaque and found myself grimacing anew. “Centurion. Well, I suppose it was nice of them to build you a memorial after you went and got yourself killed on their behalf. If you could have seen how things turned out, I wonder whether you would have bothered.” Susan, I thought, you’re talking to a statue. “Well, um, good night to you.”
My condo was small but fairly nice, the living room window overlooking the park and the ocean beyond. I threw off my clothes, unable to stand them any longer, and stood in the shower for a long time, hoping I might melt in the water. No such luck, so I cleaned myself up and threw on some pajamas. Then I made a command decision and called Eb.
“What do you want?!”
“For crying out loud, it’s not even eight yet. I just wanted to tell you I’ve got an address so that you can forward my mail.”
“The only people that ever call me are trying to sell me things I don’t want.”
“Have you gotten on Herthagon about reimbursing me for the semi yet? My jeep got squished by a giant action figure. I could use the money.”
“I’m working on it, but the place nearly burned down after my last experiment so I haven’t had much time.”
I sighed. “You can run background checks, right?”
“In that case, I have some names for you.” I dug out my envelope and told him what I knew about the rest of the crew. “Oh, and here’s my address and phone before I forget . . .” I said, reading him them as well.
“All right, I’ll get on it.”
“Thanks, I appreciate it.” I set the alarm and fell into bed.
The next day, training would begin.
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