This book is intended for a more mature audience, so be advised.
╗ EIGHT ╚
The next day proceeded almost exactly as the one before it: arrive early, proceed through security, and run orientation with Terry for several hours. Terry introduced her to the workings of her security ID badge, a holo-electronic scan key which unlocked everything concerning her new job. Any restricted access point, including computer terminals and secure databases, would unlock with a simple swipe as long as it represented a relevant part of the reactive computer project. The key would also only work when the card detected her particular bio-signs, so that it could not be used if stolen.
Then lunch, then spend the afternoon immersed in computers and bio-tech technical jargon. There would be no more harassment by Central Admin's security personnel, however. They even stood at attention as she walked in and flashed her badge to the woman at the reception desk. A bit surreal, but Anna shrugged it off. At least they were not poking and prodding her inside the building anymore, albeit still scanning. She was still required to traverse all the same checkpoints to get through the perimeter fences, but the process had smoothed out considerably.
It was a good thing that she liked Dr. Jarrod too, because he decided that the second day was soon enough to dive into the deep end of his work. He also suddenly showed a strange reluctance to mention anything more about his suspicions and opinions, and remained in full-on business mode the entire time. They spent three solid hours after lunch going over the reactive computer and steeping her in its complex workings, and Anna found herself slowly coming to an appreciation of how involved Dr. Jarrod's work actually was. He boasted eighteen-year veteran status in his technology; Anna felt puny by comparison. However, by the end of the second day they had already begun to hammer out a workable solution to the transfer protocol problem.
Anna's third day began to feel routine. She breezed through the multiple walls, fences, and scanners and headed to Level 2 to meet Terry for more training. The tall blonde woman stood waiting for her in her usual pose with arms crossed and grudging approval on her face. However, Anna almost felt there was something more there now: grudging fondness as well, perhaps? Something about Terry's eyes had softened, maybe? Whatever it was, Anna felt more comfortable with her.
Terry nodded in greeting. “You're consistently punctual. I like that.”
Anna almost laughed. “Drilled into me in boarding school. They didn't tolerate tardiness.”
“I see,” Terry replied noncommittally.
Anna inwardly shrugged. Maybe she's not so fond of me yet. And with the way they've scrutinized my past, she probably already knew that. They both proceeded to the tables and, pulling their firearms from their holsters, arranged them on the tables before loading extra magazines with .40 caliber ammo. However, when they were ready to shoot Terry did not immediately pin up any targets, but instead stood with the last magazine in her hand while looking at the floor.
“Anna,” she said quietly.
The word was spoken so softly and with such concern that Anna looked up with a start. For someone who epitomized clipped and authoritative speech, this was jarringly unlike Terry. Anna raised her eyebrows in question and waited for her to speak again.
Terry swallowed and brushed a hair back from her face. “I want you to take everything we do here extremely seriously.”
“All right. I thought I had been?” Anna offered, unsure of the point of the statement.
“You have been diligent and thorough, yes,” Terry replied, finding her mental footing and proceeding more confidently. “But I have the feeling that this has not all sunk in like it should quite yet.”
Anna's mind remained a blank. “I'm-not sure what you mean. This is only my third day.”
Terry's jaw worked as some inscrutable thought flashed through her mind, and Anna could decipher nothing from her face. Finally the older woman spoke again. “You are not armed simply because we arm our officers and personnel. You are armed so that you can kill, when necessary.”
Anna swallowed and her heart beat faster. The thought had occurred to her while firing at the silhouette targets, but it had registered on some lower plane of her consciousness while her higher thoughts focused on making accurate holes in the paper. Now that Terry had mentioned it, however, Anna could feel her skin bristle with sudden cold. She licked her lips. “Kill?”
Terry nodded, looking hard into Anna's eyes. “Yes, kill. Using your firearm gave you a rush, did it not?”
Anna nodded. “I-I felt powerful,” she said slowly, almost with embarrassment.
“It's not an uncommon feeling,” Terry replied. “The feeling of power when handling a firearm, shooting it, becoming acquainted with it. It is power over the life of another, power to eliminate a threat. Potentially, the power to dominate others.”
Immediately Dr. Jarrod's comment rushed back into Anna's mind: She was the only member of the reactive science team with a gun. Her breathing increased as her mind became a rushing tumult of conflicting emotions and thoughts. Why did they give me a gun? Why did they choose me for any of this? Why not someone else? Why?
Terry must have sensed the maelstrom raging inside Anna's soul because she shook her head. “I cannot give you the why or the how of any of this, Anna. But I can help equip you for whatever is coming. I want you to trust me, with your questions and concerns. I want you to follow my advice, and follow it well.”
Anna looked hopefully at her and could feel a sudden warmth and concern in her mentor. Almost unnerving, but reassuring. Terry continued.
“You are part of a unique team here, doing unique work. Which means there is now a target of sorts painted on your back, a target that will only likely grow as time goes on.” She stared hard at Anna as she finished.
Anna bit her lip as a terrible thought suddenly crossed her mind. “Is someone trying to kill me? And if so, why was I not assigned a protective detail?”
Terry opened her mouth to speak, then thought better of it. She turned her face away from Anna and tossed the magazine onto the table with a thud. “You never know who is going to do what in this profession,” she remarked almost to herself. Anna's heart quickened again.
Terry had failed to answer her first real question.
The older woman quickly added, “I have killed before.”
Anna felt the attempted redirect strongly and anger began to bubble up inside her. But the admission intrigued, if not surprised, her. Officer Garnham looked the part in her efficiency and stolid temperament. However, it still came as a shock to hear her admit it. She decided to humor Terry's diversion for a moment. “You have?”
Terry continued to look away, her silence only prolonging the tension. Finally she sighed. “I have. I shot a man through the eye and blew his brains out of the back of his head. He was dead before he even hit the ground.”
Despite her anger Anna felt reluctant to pry, but her curiosity hounded her to find out more. “How long ago was this?”
“That doesn't matter,” Terry replied sharply, her sudden emotion not directed at Anna but at some other unknown entity. “I would have been dead had I not pulled the trigger, had I not had the will to pull the trigger. But I did, and I am alive and he is dead. And I want you to remember that, Anna. That in the larger picture, we need you alive. Which means that you need to have the will to pull the trigger if and when the time arises.”
Terry's tone had risen to an urgent pitch throughout her speech, and Anna was once again both confused and distressed. Everything felt even more cryptic and opaque than before, but Anna no longer felt like she had the permission to ask any more today, despite Terry's “open door policy.” Besides, Terry had in effect admitted that she either did not know what was going on or did not have the clearance or desire to tell her.
Disheartened and indignant, Anna picked up her weapon with less enthusiasm than before and walked up to the firing line. “I assume we are doing the same exercises today as before?” she asked flatly.
A strange look passed briefly over Terry's face before it reverting back to the usual business-like somberness. She shook herself and picked up a rolled up paper target. “You assumed correctly.” She clipped it to the sliding hangar and let the paper unfurl. Anna felt a sinking feeling in the pit of her stomach as she saw, not a black human silhouette, but a full-color representation of a man holding a gun pointed threateningly in her direction. The whole exercise had become much more personal.
For the next two hours she practiced with minimal supervision, then broke down the weapon and cleaned it. When the gun was clean again a new officer joined Terry and introduced himself to Anna as a Sergeant Revier. A short, powerful and blocky man, he began to demonstrate some tactical maneuvers to Anna with a dummy firearm. No sooner had he begun, however, when Terry's commex began to chirp. The group paused the exercise as Terry answered the call.
Her conversation was short, but dramatic. Anna watched Terry's face go red with consternation, and then turn completely white. “Really? Now? He wants her now? What for?” After another moment she sighed with resignation and tapped the screen to cut the call. She licked her lips nervously and slid the commex back into her pocket. “You can go now, Sergeant,” she said, waving him off. He grunted something in annoyance and stalked away.
“What happened?” Anna asked, mystified.
“You are spending the rest of the day with someone else,” Terry replied uncomfortably. She picked up her firearm from the table and holstered it and Anna mimicked her reluctantly. The two of them exited the firing range and returned to the elevator, where Terry tapped the topmost button and watched the doors slide shut.
Anna's blood churned. “Where are we going?”
“To the top floor,” Terry remarked solemnly. “The Party General Secretary wants to see you personally in his office.”
It was as if a bomb had exploded inside her head and Anna felt as if she were falling even though the elevator moved steadily upward. The combination sickened her. She shot an arm out to the wall to counter her sudden vertigo and save herself from falling over, but her head would not stop spinning.
The leader of the entire Reunited States, the General Secretary himself, wants to see me. The most powerful man in the world wants me in his office. She had no time to prepare, no time to gather her thoughts or steel herself for such an encounter.
“Terry, help, I'm going to be sick...” she blurted out. Her own body surprised her in its total breakdown of higher control. It had rarely happened before like this, with no alcohol or medication of any kind in her system. Terry reached out a supporting arm and Anna grabbed at it.
“Pull yourself together Anna, he wants you now. And that means that you're going to see him, no matter how you're feeling about it.” Terry's voice was harsh but definitive and represented a rock to cling to. Anna gritted her teeth and willed herself to calm down. Few ever got to see the Secretary on a regular basis, and very few people were ever especially summoned to his private suite. At least that was as far as Anna knew. She barely knew what he looked like anyways.
Terry became business-like. “Just answer his questions and follow directions,” she said quickly. “And remember that he is just a human being like anybody else.”
Just a human being like anybody else?? The sentiment did not resonate with Anna at all. She found herself possessed by a sudden desperation to know what the hell was going on and to either escape from it or throw herself into it headlong and be done. All of this cryptic behavior surrounding her did not help. The desperation fueled her anger and she turned on Terry.
“Terry, how much are you telling me? Or not telling me?” she asked quietly. “I feel like the world around here has begun to revolve around me and no one will give me a clue as to why. Why am I special? What does the Secretary want with me? What do any of you want with me? Why was I brought in, besides the transfer protocol?”
Terry stared at her for a long moment. Her face showed no signs of returning Anna's anger; if anything, she looked sad. “Anna, I don't know.”
“Bullshit!” Anna muttered miserably.
“It's true. You mistake my rank. I only know my orders.”
Anna groaned and slumped against the elevator wall. “I don't want to do this,” she groaned.
”I think he wants you in his office so that he can tell you what is going on himself,” Terry proffered. “He doesn't mean to make you anxious and miserable. This is unlike you, Anna. ”
“If you say so . . . ” Anna shook her head to clear the nausea.
The doors slid open and Terry crossed into the new hallway. She turned on her heel to face Anna through the opening. “Are you coming?”
Anna nodded and followed her through the doors. This new floor differed strikingly from the rest of the building. Instead of the sterile grays of the lower levels, the top level of Central Admin boasted sumptuous salmon-hued marble walls and floors lit by imitation-incandescent lighting. Beautifully executed vaulted ceilings stretched the entire length of the hall and one whole wall was dedicated to tall windows in cherry wood. The effect it produced was warm and dignified, if not exactly inviting. Despite her anxiety Anna couldn't help but notice its beauty and she found herself stealing glances out of the windows as they traversed the length of the hall.
A beep emanated from her pocket. Anna distractedly pulled out her commex and swiped the screen. Then she froze; Jesse's number blinked on the screen. She hesitated, then realized that he was the last person she wanted to talk to right now. She mashed the exit button and pocketed the device, and tried to put him out of her mind.
They came to another scanner manned by two guards, one of whom requested that Anna hand over her weapon and walk through the frame. She complied and, after a physical pat down from the other guard, she was given the thumbs up. She turned to Terry.
Terry waved her ahead. “His door is right there. You are to go in alone.”
Anna's stomach dropped again. “Are you sure?”
The door in question was the last door at the end of the hall, a huge heavy oak affair stained an extremely dark brown. It looked old and imposing, and Anna hesitated before walking up to it and knocking timidly. She jumped as she heard an electronic lock click open and turned to see if Terry still stood behind her. Terry raised her eyebrows at Anna and gestured for her to go. Steeling herself, Anna pushed the door open, stepped inside and shut it behind her again. The rest of the world seemed to disappear and a profound silence enveloped her.
Her first impression was the dim light. Only one tall window allowed a shaft of sunlight in from the right side of the room, revealing a dark oak desk and an empty chair behind it. Every wall was a bookshelf, and every shelf was crammed with books and documents of all kinds. A fire crackled in a large fireplace behind the desk, and in front of the fireplace stood a man.
His back was to Anna, one hand on the mantelpiece and the other on a metal cane. All she could see of him was his long brown hair overlapping a beautifully tailored suit coat. She hesitated, completely out of her element, the desire to simply bolt back out through the door growing to almost overwhelming levels. Before she could act on that impulse, however, the man turned suddenly and smiled.
His face was long and thin, his teeth very white. Every stitch of clothing he wore screamed designer label, from his frock-type coat to the shoes on his feet. Anna also noticed that the clothing, although well-made, exhibited signs of age and dust. The man also stood at an impressive height; Anna guessed he would easily have measured at six-two.
He stood with the whole weight of his upper body leaning into his cane through both hands, regarding Anna with a strange sort of quiet excitement. His eyes took her in from across the office and he nodded with what felt like approval. He gestured for her to sit in one of the plush leather seats in front of his desk.
“Please,” he said. “I won't have you standing there like that, come and sit.”
Smooth and reassuring, Anna decided. Which was good, because her knees had come close to knocking together in her anxiety. She slowly shuffled over to the desk, eying him the entire time. He watched her with a quiet amusement as she warily approached.
He held out a hand to her and smiled. “Welcome, Miss Annalise McLean, to my humble office. It is so good to finally officially meet you. I am the Party General Secretary, as you might have guessed.”
Anna shook his hand. “It's an honor to meet you, sir,” she croaked through a dry throat.
The man smiled again reassuringly. “Please, there is no need to stand on ceremony. Your name is Anna, is it not? And I will call you that. My name,” he added as he sank into his own chair, “is Adam. And you will call me that.”
Click here to read Chapter 9!