As Told by Dakota Sue
I really did wander by Finn’s place, but he wasn’t there, and, well, with one thing and another I just forgot to bring it up again.
The next Tuesday I arrived at the training area to find it abandoned; with some looking I managed to locate Archer in the briefing room; he was messing with a stack of paperwork. Q was already there but he just shrugged at me, obviously not knowing what was going on any better than I did.
“Do we have a mission or something?” I asked as Finn and Nat appeared, followed shortly by Durance.
“Yes, you do. Everyone take a seat.”
We sat down; Durance took advantage of the pause to light a cigarette. I got the impression that he smoked, not because he liked it, but because it made him look dour and grim enough to deserve his name.
Archer cleared his throat. “You’ll notice Paul isn’t here; he’s with Agent Alpha transporting the terrorists you captured during your first mission. Your mission, however, will be to assassinate a difficult target, one which we expect will require all of you.”
I felt my breath freeze in my throat. “Say what?”
Archer acted as though he hadn’t heard me, passing folders around the room. I took mine and flipped through it, certain there had to be some kind of mistake. By the time I’d read a few pages my shock had turned into a slow, furious boil. “You’re sending us to kill the Patriot? What the heck for?”
Jack Simmons was a traditional costumed superhero, it was true, but he’d spent decades fighting the good fight and for all appearances had retired after a bout with cancer that had forced him into a full-body cybernetic replacement. I might not approve of his methods, but I couldn’t see any reason why anyone even halfway legitimate would want him terminated with extreme prejudice.
“Director Powers believes that he’s trying to join the Freedom League. Since he was formerly director of this Agency, this constitutes a threat to national security.”
I tried again. “You can’t possibly be serious.”
“Look, they aren’t my orders, Page, they come from the top.”
“Damn,” Durance murmured, exhaling a puff of smoke.
“Now, don’t get me wrong, I think the Freedom League is a bunch of kooks, but I did not sign up for this to kill people that know too much!”
“You follow orders like the rest of us, Page, whether you like it or not.”
Q interrupted, clearly trying to salvage the situation. His voice was tinged with desperation. “Is he still an active agent? Has he shown signs of going rogue?”
Archer turned to him. “He’s been in regular contact with established Freedom League members, and not just in a social capacity. Powers has had him under surveillance for more than a month.”
“Did he establish these communications or was he approached by the League?”
“Our intel is that he’s establishing the communication. Your job is to tail him, establish a pattern, and construct a plan to liquidate him.”
My desk creaked ominously as I clenched my hands into fists, leaving deep finger marks in the metal. Archer glanced over to see me glaring and sighed. “I’d like a word with you in private, Page.”
I stood slowly, restraining myself as best I could, each movement accented by warning pops and creaks from the desk I’d forced to conform to my shape a great deal more than its design was prepared to accommodate. When I finally made it upright, it collapsed. Archer walked to his office and opened the door, waiting for me to join him.
When I reached the doorway he sat down. “Close the door, Sue.”
I tapped it as lightly as I could manage and let it swing closed, then turned to look at him. “You are a freaking asshole!”
He winced slightly but didn’t look away. “I’ve been called worse. Anything else you want to say? Better let it out now.”
“You prick! I TRUSTED YOU!!!” I whirled around to glare at the wall, unable to continue. I don’t think I’d ever been angrier in my life.
“If you’re quite finished? Take a look at this.” He held a folder out into my field of view. “This is the intel Powers sent us. I had my own sources check it. It is, as you surmised, bullshit.”
I huffed a few breaths then snatched the folder out of his hand and began looking through it.
“All phony. Powers wants him dead for some other reason.”
“So why are you telling me this?”
“Because if I want you to fail this mission, I really have to tell one of you beforehand.”
The sudden relief was so severe it was almost like physical pain; I took a deep breath and blew it all out to hide that fact. “The others aren’t going to like this.”
“I know. That’s partly why I sent Paul away. I’d do the same with Q because of his relationship with Powers, but there wasn’t an opportunity.”
“What happens if Powers finds out that you told me to throw it?”
“Then I’ll take the responsibility; it won’t be the first time I’ve been in trouble for my principles. Powers may be prepared for this eventuality, though,” Archer handed me a second folder. “This man recently arrived in the area; he’s Japanese and makes a living out of killing meta-humans. If I’m right, he’s the backup plan.”
I groaned. “So what do I do? I’m assuming you want me to act like we’re sticking with the real plan?”
He shrugged, looking tired and dispirited; showing his age. “It’s up to you. I . . . honestly I don’t know who else to trust with this information. If you want to know about the professional assassin I’d suggest talking with his handler here on the East Coast; a Chris Lodoss. He runs a tech shop in Hanover.”
I tried to think, hard, and kept coming up blank. It wouldn’t do any good at all to sit here with Archer watching me, clearly hoping I would come up with something to salvage this god awful mess. “All right . . . I think I’m going to tell the others that the Japanese guy is involved with the Freedom League and he’s here to protect Simmons. Something like that.”
He looked relieved. “Sounds good. I’ll try to get a message through to Simmons so you can maneuver without having to fight him.”
“It’s a start, I guess, I’ll figure the rest out as I go.” I got up to leave, then turned around to look at him, frowning. He looked as much in need of something to hold onto as I was. “Boss?”
“I’m sorry I yelled at you.”
He grimaced. “If I’d actually expected you to carry out those orders, I would have deserved it. You know, you’re a lot like I was at your age. I knew you’d be furious.”
I reached over and patted his shoulder. He smiled faintly. “Good luck, Susan.”
I turned to regard the door and hyperventilated for a few seconds to get my face red, then I stormed out of the office, slamming the door behind me so hard that the frame cracked. I heard Archer murmur faintly, in protest, “Of course, I couldn’t bench-press a truck when I was your age . . .”
My crew looked up from their discussion, startled, and Finn spoke for all of them, “I’m guessing that went over really well.”
Nat chuckled. “Smashingly.”
“What the hell are you guys doing still sitting here?!” I yelled. “Get your gear!”
“Oh, my ears!” Nat complained.
“The Freedom League,” I snapped, has sent someone to keep tabs on Simmons until their negotiations go through. So, we now get to go looking for this new guy. He’s got a contact named Chris Lodoss. Archer has suggested we start there.” I stomped off dramatically in the direction of the motor pool.
Durance looked at the others. “So who goes to check on Mr. Lodoss, and who goes to scout?”
Why is it that people always wait until the worst possible moment to turn into original thinkers? It doesn’t help that I’m a really lousy liar.
“I’m not letting you guys out of my sight! We’re all going!” I yelled back down the hall. The crew began slowly moving in my direction, Durance especially reluctant.
“Who needs five metas to talk with someone?”
“We don’t know how many people may be at Lodoss’ shop,” I explained desperately. “When we split up, people get shot.”
“You’re making this up, Page. We’re doing recon. We shouldn’t even need our gear. You’re just going to draw attention and screw up the mission.”
“That may be the point,” Finn added. “Tip him off so he has time to run.”
“If you don’t like it, talk to Archer. I’m just a lackey. I do what I’m told to do.”
“Okay, I need to say something here,” Nat announced.
“Fire away, lady!”
“LOSE THE ‘TUDE!! We’re all in this together, we don’t have to like it, we just have to do it, so just shut up.”
“Mmrph.” I stood there and stared at their obstinate, angry faces for a few seconds, then threw up my hands. “I give up. I suck at this. Okay, fine, I’m going to risk trusting you guys, because we’re not going to get anywhere any other way. Archer wants us to throw the mission.”
Durance rolled his eyes. “Joy.”
“That’s about my response. The assassination order was so off the wall that Archer had his personal contacts check up on it . . . all the info Powers sent us is totally bogus.”
“So why did he order us to do it, then?” Nat asked, skeptical.
“Because Powers has people in place to watch Archer and make sure he sends us to do it.”
“But why does Powers want us to do this?” she pressed.
“I have no idea. Powers wants Simmons dead, but we don’t know why, and until we do, we can’t do much. Archer wants us to act like we tried and flubbed it, however, there’s a complication.”
“Complication?” Durance asked.
“The ‘Freedom League’ guy. Archer suspects he’s a Japanese killer sent to do the job if we fail. The way I see it, priority one is: keep Simmons alive. Priority two is: find out what the heck’s going on.”
Finn frowned. “It makes sense to have half the team flub the mission while the other half watches this Japanese guy and impedes his efforts without becoming directly involved.”
“Could do,” I conceded hesitantly. “With luck, we can use the other guy to find out why Powers actually wants this done. So who wants to do what? Volunteers?”
Durance thought a bit. “I could tackle the Japanese guy.”
“Yeah, you and . . . Q. Nat, Finn and I will go tackle Simmons.”
“Drop us off, then,” Durance said, and everyone loaded into the van. I drove us across town and left Durance and Q at a rather seedy mechanical shop.
Finn piped up after they left the van. “Aren’t we supposed to have crappy takeout food or something on a stakeout?”
“I’m hungry, come to think of it,” Nat added.
I shrugged. “If you’re really hungry I think we can find something.” Then I frowned, wondering, and asked idly. “Look, I have to ask, are you guys going out or what?”
“Going out?” Finn smirked. “What are we, twelve? Do you like Nat? Check yes or no.”
“Would you have preferred it if I’d asked you whether you were screwing?”
“That would be rude. Besides, when have we had time to do anything but jump when Archer says so?”
“I had enough time to acquire a kid. I’m only asking because I don’t want it to be a problem.”
“A problem?” he asked. “Are you worried we’ll have an argument and refuse to work together or something?”
“No, I’m worried someone might get killed.”
“When it comes down to it, I’m all business,” he snapped, and stared out the window with a grim expression.
“What gives you the right to ask all these questions? Our personal lives are not really your business.” I pulled into a parking lot and stopped the car. This wasn’t a great time for this conversation, but then, there rarely is any good time. You just have to take what you can get.
“Your personal lives are as much my business now as mine is yours. So spare me the wrath.”
“I don’t care what you do in your private time and I’d appreciate it if you kept your nose out of what I do with mine,” she declared and got out, slamming the door. I watched Finn, wondering what he would do.
“I can say this, and this only, okay? If someone poses a danger or steps over the line, you do not have to worry, not for a second. Because I will put them down. No questions. No second thoughts.”
“I know.” I’d read his background.
“We don’t need to lay everything on the table,” he continued. I could almost imagine there was a note of pleading in his voice. “We just need to know we can trust each other when it counts. Deal?”
“On one condition,” I told him. “Trust me enough to remember that it’s my job to decide when someone has crossed the line.” I held out my hand and waited.
“And what if you cross the line? Will you know?”
“I’ll know. I’m not like your old team, Finn.”
He chuckled mirthlessly. “You talk like you knew them. I didn’t even know them. I thought I did.”
“I know some things. Look, I’m not saying I’m perfect, but I do know where the line is.”
His cheek twitched. “I can’t trust anyone one hundred percent. It’s just a hard lesson I had to learn. It’s not that I don’t try; I just always have that in the back of my head. That friendly smile before they put a bullet in me and stuck a syringe in my arm.”
I reached over and ruffled his hair gently. “I’ll learn to live with it.”
He forced a smile, but it looked sick. “I’m going to check on Nat before she sets the van on fire.”
I sighed. Well, one down, four more to go. That, and we still had to do something about Simmons.
This was turning out to be a fine day.
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