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C H A P T E R  E I G H T

 VANGUARD JOINT OPERATIONS BASE, PAKISTAN 

 PREMONITION 

 2 MARCH, 1984     22:43 

CHAPTERS

        Cecilia stifled a yawn.

        She had given audience to the constant buzz of the fluorescent light above her head for so long that her brain had begun to tune out the frequency altogether, leaving a vaguely discombobulating, cotton-like absence of sound in both ears. 

        Every now and then, there was the sound of a dry, hacking cough from the other side of the wall, making Cecilia very thankful that she was in this room and not that one.

        She was the lone occupant of this particular ward of the clinic, and her role as such was cemented by her observation that the only light in the room that was in use was the one above her head, which clicked and flickered every few minutes. Looming shadows of medical equipment hung back in the darkest reaches of the room beyond the empty beds behind her like boogeymen. The shapes crept toward her each time she looked away, pulled and puppeted in her peripherals by the dull throbs of what she knew was soon to become a splitting headache.

        The small bed she sat upon had been tidily made up with scratchy bleached sheets that had been starting to make the palms of her hands itch. The large window at the end of the room was blackened from the late hour, and in it, Cecilia could see her reflection, hunched from exhaustion and boredom.

        She kicked her feet back and forth off the side of the bed absentmindedly, plucking at a loose thread on the seam of her pants. They were still dusted with sandy grime, a reminder–along with the pain in her shoulder–of the grand stunt she had pulled only a short while ago. The constant barrage of fluorescent lights, the clicking of pens, the clearing of throats, going from room to room to sign this, fingerprint that… What had felt like days had really only been a matter of hours.

        Cecilia had gotten what she wanted, more or less. They sliced a hefty eight thousand off the top of her desired salary–which would go straight back to Uncle Sam, of course–but she was met with surprisingly little pushback on her request for legal and diplomatic immunity. Perhaps she shouldn’t have been surprised; the CIA probably handed out that kind of thing like candy. 

        Or, what she was offering was well worth the trouble to them.

        Making a convincing pitch had been easy enough. With no one well-versed enough in scientific endeavors to call her bluff, she could have promised them anything just to buy herself more time. She could have sold them on the idea of an invisible ray gun if she worded it convincingly enough. But what her new associates lacked in scientific know-how, they most certainly possessed in efficiency. Like a cog in an ever-running machine, they fully intended to use Cecilia until her breaking point–which they had most compassionately decided, with the input of Javelin’s doctor, would be in no more than eight months.

        There was something quite irrevocable about having the remainder of her lifespan so mathematically laid out in inky black Times New Roman on an eight-and-a-half by eleven-inch piece of paper, crested with the seal of the CIA. She wondered how many taxpayer dollars went into creating the formula they had come up with just for the purpose of putting a nice, clean number to her remaining days. 

        But she couldn’t just spend her last year and a half knocking back mimosas before finally biting the dust with her middle finger in the air. Every week, she was to brief Horne and the others from Washington on her progress. The CIA would have a physicist sitting in on the conversation via conference call. She was to meet with a government-issue shrink once a month to make sure she wasn’t at risk of terminating her contract before the work was done. The icing on the cake, however, was signing over the right for Javelin to pump her full of any and every drug deemed necessary to keep her alive long enough to finish the job.

        Cecilia had no intention of going out in such an undignified manner, so she committed herself to finishing the job in half the time. If she could. 

        Her only remaining obstacle was that she had no idea where to start.

        There was a click as the door ahead of Ceilia opened. A man in a white coat and salt-and-pepper hair emerged from behind it, his attention given fully to the manila file folder he held closely to his face as if the rectangular spectacles he wore had no purpose at all. He seemed deeply intrigued by whatever information the papers in front of him bore as he reached for the rolling stool next to the door and pushed it in Cecilia’s direction. He smoothly lowered himself onto it without so much a glance in its direction as it rolled the rest of the way, stopping beside the bed. 

        “Your CD4 lymphocyte levels are higher than they were six months ago, I will say that,” Dr. Gambin said. “But that’s to be expected. We’ll see them dip again in the coming months.”

        Cecilia chewed on her lip. She had already had enough doom and gloom for one day. She nodded her head impatiently.

        Gambin peered over his glasses at her, his brow furrowing upwards. 

        “You’re sure you’re not in pain of any kind? No discomfort?” He gestured with the pen in his hand. “I mean, I’m not really supposed to just offer these kinds of things, but–considering your contract–I can put you on something that’ll keep you functioning normally-”

        “I’d tell you if I started feeling off. Really-” Cecilia started. She rubbed her forehead. “Although–unrelated–I do think I have a headache coming on.”

        “An ibuprofen for now, then.” He jotted a note in the file.

        He was a middle-aged man of average stature, and at all times, he wore somewhat of an air of unapproachability. This facade was quickly dashed if one managed to catch him at a good time and was able to engage in any conversation longer than a cursory greeting. Cecilia had found him to be quite kind when he wasn’t facing a time constraint of one kind or another, which was rare. 

        The clinic must have been fairly quiet this evening because instead of the perfunctory jab in the arm, popsicle stick shoved down the throat sort of hello-goodbye interaction that Cecilia had grown accustomed to, Dr. Gambin seemed to have enough time to spare to sit down and have a conversation. He had inquired about her knowledge of caela radiation–admitting that he knew very little about it at all and certainly wasn’t trained to treat it–and requested that she point him toward the appropriate resources to learn from. For the first time in a long, long time, Cecilia had felt like she was speaking to someone genuinely interested in what she knew, and so she had let all of the details of her fixation tumble forth, no longer confined to the recesses of her mind. For a while, she forgot that she was no longer back in Cologne with her associates, bubbling over with excitement for their new discoveries and developments. Gambin had allowed her to gush uninterrupted. He listened intently to her responses and explanations, writing in his notes here and there as she spoke, interjecting only once or twice to present a follow-up question.

        Maybe he genuinely wanted to know, or maybe he just felt sorry for her. Cecilia almost wished he wasn’t as kind as he was so that she wouldn’t have to live with the humiliation of being pitied.

        “Just give me a moment to get you that ibuprofen, and then you can be on your way,” he said, placing his hand on his knee and rising from his seat. He tucked his pen into the front pocket of his coat and disappeared through the door once more, this time leaving the door ajar behind him.

        A cool draft of air washed in from the hallway, and Cecilia closed her eyes, hoping that her next stop would be wherever it was that she was to be sleeping from here on out.

        She knew that she desperately needed to determine where she would begin tomorrow and how she would reasonably pace herself over the course of the coming days and weeks as she dipped her toes back into the uncharted waters of the science she thought she had known so well. She had lived it, breathed it, for the entirety of her adult life…

        How had it contorted itself into something that was no longer familiar to her, something that struck a hollow chord of abysmal fear in her heart every time she was reminded of how much she didn’t know

        The only one who could help quiet the questions her subconscious screamed over and over again at her to find an answer to was gone, entombed for eternity under the red Tanzanian earth.

        Along with so, so many others.

        A wave of nausea swept over Cecilia, and her hand flew to her sternum as if to stay the bile that rose in her throat. She swallowed and inhaled deeply through her nose, remembering the technique that she had devised to help her breathe away her stomach-turning memories of The Event each time they resurfaced. In her slow exhale, the flashes and shadows of that night began to drift back into the dark corners of her mind that she had banished them to. They fought harder against this exile every time. Even now, it took an extra two breaths to stay the faces of death that leapt forth in protest. 

        A rhythmic swishing from the hallway pulled Cecilia from her meditative state. She turned her attention to the door.

        With the squeak of a boot upon linoleum, a soldier in Javelin fatigues appeared in the doorway. His cheeks were rosy, and his chest heaved as he caught his breath.

        “Ms. Whitaker,” he managed, his eyes practically bugging out of his head with urgency, “Lochte wants to see you.” 

        Cecilia caressed her forehead in her hands and sighed. “Um… Okay. I’m just waiting for Dr. Gam-”

        “I’m sorry–but he means now.”

        Cecilia dropped her hands back into her lap with exasperation and sighed again, more audibly this time, so the soldier could be made aware of just how much of an inconvenience this was. She slid off the bed and joined him in the doorway.

        “Sorry,” he repeated as he turned on his heel and set off down the hallway, his bootsoles chirruping with each purposeful step. Cecilia begrudgingly followed, and the soldier fell silent as they padded down the stairwell and exited the clinic into the night.

        The air was much cooler than it was when she had been led over to the clinic earlier that evening. The biting rays of the sun had long been swallowed by the distant horizon, and the cool tide of night had rolled into the valley from the surrounding mountains. An occasional flash of the aerodrome beacon from somewhere beyond the buildings ahead of them sliced the sky. Green. White, white. Green. White, white. Other than the steady crunch of their feet on the gravel, the night was deafeningly quiet.

        An unexpected chill prickled up the hairs on the back of Cecilia’s neck, and she shuddered. 

        The soldier seemed to be leading her back in the direction of the small building that housed the interrogation rooms. Cecilia’s heart dipped into her stomach. She tried to account for some scrap of information she had said–or not said–that could warrant her being summoned back to that humiliating seat in front of the mirror.

        She gulped down the excessive amount of saliva that had flooded her mouth, which was accompanied by a dull twinge in the pit of her stomach. Her mind began to race.

        There was a commotion ahead as they rounded the corner of the clinic. Next to the interrogation building was a landing pad she had never noticed before, and upon it was a helicopter so black she wouldn’t have known it was there if not for the bright light that blazed down on it. Surrounding it were the forms of several soldiers, all scurrying back and forth between the building and the helicopter. Cecilia could hear raised voices, and as she and the soldier drew closer, she could see that some of them were ferrying boxes of… something into the building. Papers fluttered in the air around them and littered their path. One figure was crouched, hurriedly collecting the straggling scraps and sheets into one muddled stack in the crook of their arm.

        The manner in which these soldiers merely carried themselves–even the one chasing papers–contrasted starkly with the lackadaisical nature of the soldier ahead of Cecilia. They moved with purpose, like a small colony of ants operating under an unseen hivemind. As Cecilia neared, she noticed that the darkness of their forms wasn’t from any lack of light illuminating their features but rather due to the dark, blackened shade of the uniforms they wore. They were mere shadows under the light above them and moved just as smoothly as such. All that revealed their humanity was the dull glint of a gun across their backs as they passed back and forth under the light.

        Almost as if he could sense her wandering gaze, the soldier ahead of her looked back at her over his shoulder.

        “Come on,” he beckoned, continuing to trudge across the road at a clip she could barely keep up with. He reached the main door of the building and swung it open for her. 

        Cecilia broke her gaze from the spectacle on the landing pad and entered the building, her hand flying to her eyes as the bright overhead lights blinded her momentarily and prompted her headache to graduate from a dull throb to a stabbing pain. The soldier stepped past her, and she took the opportunity to stop for a moment, cupping her hand over her brow and blinking rapidly in an attempt to return her vision to normal. 

        “This way,” the soldier pressed.

        Cecilia wished he would go back to not saying anything at all.

        She started off once more, guided only by the direction from which the soldier’s voice had come as her vision slowly returned, along with the ache in her head. When she finally mustered the strength to allow her hand to fall back to her side, she noticed that her chaperone was already rounding a corner ahead of her. 

        Cecilia took advantage of the rare moment of independence to take in her surroundings. She had never set foot in this building’s small, somewhat cluttered foyer before. Every time she had been questioned here, she had always been quickly shuttled in and out of some rusty rear door–which Cecilia had no idea where she was in relation to now.

        The building seemed to follow a simple L-shape, judging by the only direction there was to go at the end of the hall ahead of her: right. Now, though, she stood in what she assumed had once been some sort of administrative room. A long-abandoned desk with a dusty computer perched atop it had been pushed against the wall some time ago, as indicated by the scars the metal legs had left upon the old, faded linoleum. The opposite wall was hugged by several tall, tan file cabinets. These seemed to be in use in some form, as the labels marking each drawer were freshly made in a typeface Cecilia knew to belong only to a recent computer model. 

        The rest of the room was bare, with the exception of a clock that hung off-center and somewhat askew on the far wall, next to a closed door. It ticked impatiently, as if it, too, was waiting for her arrival.

        She approached the corner around which the soldier had disappeared, and was met with the sight of a long hallway with half a dozen doors on either side. At the end was her familiar rusty door. 

        Everything suddenly seemed so different from this perspective.

        She saw the last ten months of being dragged in and out of the second room from the end on the left playing out before her like a stage production. She could almost see Horne standing there with his hands on his hips in indignation as the old Cecilia was pulled along towards the door, bawling and begging for someone to believe her, her heels dug into the ground like a petulant child.

        Cecilia found herself disgusted by this vision of the past that danced before her.

        She blinked and turned her attention to the door to her right. Muffled voices came from within.

        Cecilia steeled her nerves and–

        Her momentum was suddenly thrown askew by some unseen force and she collided with the concrete wall to her side. She doubled over as her knees buckled, her head pounding from the impact as she choked on a breath that she had half-swallowed. A dark, gloved hand closed around the loose fabric at the neck of her shirt and hoisted her back up and against the wall. The back of her head connected forcefully with the concrete bricks, and Cecilia swore she saw stars for a moment as the pain in her head screamed and tugged at the nerves in her eye sockets.

        Before she could vocalize anything at all, a forearm pinned her windpipe shut, leaving her to gag on an expletive that had faltered in her throat. 

        When the orbs of blinding light faded from her vision, she was brought face-to-face with…

        Davy?

        His face was barely recognizable, twisted by some sort of frenzy and completely covered in a thick layer of soot, sweat, and grime. A scarlet smear–and dried drips trailing down from it–cut across his cheek and the bridge of his nose.

        Blood.

        But not his.

        He pushed his arm into her neck with more force. She instinctively wobbled up onto the tips of her toes and clawed at his arm as a cry for help bubbled in her throat.

        “What did you tell them?” he pressed, his voice no louder than a biting whisper.

        Cecilia began to feel dizzy. She weakly hammered her fist against his forearm several times, trying to get him to allow her to choke out an answer.

        He loosened his hold, but only slightly. Cecilia gulped in a shallow breath.

        “N-nothing,” she sputtered.

        “Bullshit,” he said between grit teeth, his nostrils flaring.

        “I sw-swear...” Tears started to bead in the corners of her eyes. She could feel her pulse pounding away at her temples, each heartbeat sending a spike of pain up and over the crown of her head. His rough, dirt-encrusted black sleeve scratched unforgivingly against her throat. She tried her best to suck in every bit of air that she could, knowing that someone whose eyes flashed the way his did now was someone without any care for whether she continued to breathe or not. 

        He ground his molars back and forth as he looked down at her from under a darkened brow, seeming to chew on his next words carefully. The overwhelmingly thick scent of smoke and gasoline permeated his clothing and clouded the precious air Cecilia tried to breathe. She squeezed her eyes shut as her throat seized, and she gagged.

        Davy pushed against her neck once more to quiet her. She clawed desperately at his sleeve, to no avail.

        “These people will eat you alive,” he hissed. “And I’m going to watch them do it.” He started to straighten up, then dipped his chin towards her again. “I will stop at nothing to keep you from spouting your–your-” his lip snarled as he cut himself off, as if he was too abhorred to even elaborate.

        He didn’t need to say a word further for Cecilia–even in her disoriented state–to know what he was referring to. She struggled to arrange a final coherent response.

        “I…” Cecilia trailed off, the blackened edges of her vision burning inwards as her eyesight began to fade and her legs gave out beneath her.

        “George.” A clear, familiar voice cut through the muffled whoosh of blood against Cecilia’s eardrums, and the pressure on her throat was immediately removed.

        She dropped to the floor, her hands smacking flat against the cool linoleum to catch herself as she gasped for breath.

        “Don’t antagonize my patients.”

        Cecilia looked up, her mouth hanging open as she tried to gulp down enough air to feed to her oxygen-starved sense of perception. Through the blurry fog of half-consciousness, she could make out a swirling figure of azure and white standing behind the dark shapes of Davy’s legs.

        Dr. Gambin.

        Cecilia’s senses began to return. The palms of her hands were stinging from her fall, and her legs buzzed with a maddening alternation of extreme cold and unbearable warmth as she regained their cooperation. Back with a vengeance, of course, was the excruciating headache. Davy’s hand hooked under her arm and pulled her upward, yanking her above the clouds of lingering haze and confusion.

        Gambin didn’t look pleased. 

        “What are you doing here?”

        Cecilia was surprised to find his irritated query was directed at her.

        “I-” Cecilia stuttered, trying to shake off her bewilderment at all that had just transpired. She motioned limply to the room she was destined for. “Lochte–”

        “Here,” Gambin said, unceremoniously offering her two small paper cups, one in each hand. She took them from him, and he swept past, mumbling something under his breath as he threw open the door to the room and disappeared inside.

        His absence left a flat silence and a tangible essence of discomfort that prickled against Cecilia’s skin as she stood there under Davy’s glare with her paper cups, wobbling slightly. In one cup was a sip or two of water, and in the other was a small red ibuprofen capsule. She hadn’t been this happy to see anything in a while.

        Cecilia knocked back the pill, and then the water. She closed her eyes, savoring the coolness of it as it washed over the heat of her burning throat.

        There was a sharp intake of breath from Davy as an undoubtedly venomous statement prepared to roll off his tongue.

        “I didn’t tell them about-” Cecilia cut him off, her voice cracking. She swallowed, trying to soothe her throat enough to continue. “I didn’t tell them about what we saw.” She met his glare, searching for the slightest twitch to confirm that he knew what she was referring to.

        Oddly, his expression remained static.

        Her eyes widened, and her lips parted in incredulity. “You’ve convinced yourself that… that thing wasn’t real-”

        “It wasn’t,” he said. He quickly scanned their surroundings before whirling back to confront her. “And I don’t need you treating your hallucinations like a golden carrot to dangle in front of Lochte-”

        “Hal-Hallucinations? We-”

        “Psychosis, Whitaker. Or have you forgotten your own goddamn research?” He closed in on her. “Yes, I read your asinine reports. ‘Mild to severe exposure can cause lasting psychosis,’ among–of course–the host of other ailments I went through, like a fucking laundry list, when I got here.”

        Cecilia clicked her molars together. As much as it aggravated her to have her own research foisted upon her so ineptly, he was right, and there was no convincing him otherwise now that he had attached himself to his shoddily-constructed sense of assurance.

        He lifted his chin, his tendons fluttering under the skin at the corners of his jaw as he awaited her inevitable retort. He seemed to know that she would never dare to speak against her own written word.

        Cecilia held her head up a little higher. “Regardless, I don’t intend to ruin my own credibility by talking about things that others might perceive as… ludicrous. I know what I saw, and I suppose you’ve settled on…” She pursed her lips as she searched for words with the right amount of venom. “... Whatever bullshit helps you make peace with the guys you left to die.” 

        Too far.

        Cecilia expected a strike across her face, a hand to close around her neck, some sort of physical pain as payment for the remark. Davy seemed to be good at that form of communication, she had begun to realize. Perhaps she even truly deserved it this time. 

        But he only stood there, expressionless, his jaw moving back and forth as he watched her, judged her.

        “Maybe I should have put you out of your misery after all,” Davy said dryly, brushing past her and entering the room the others had gone into. The door clicked shut behind him, leaving her alone in the silence of the hallway.

        Cecilia had never felt more pathetic.

        She fiddled with the empty paper cups in her hands, folding them neatly into each other. She continued to fold them smaller and smaller, her fingers shaking and tears welling in her eyes. She wished that she, too, could fold herself into oblivion until not a single atom remained. How had she become so detached from this world before she had even begun to leave it?

        She pursed her lips and curled the small wad of paper into her fist before pushing it down into the pocket of her trousers. Her eyes fixated on a single chipped brick on the wall across from her until her vision became clouded with the tears she could no longer fight back. Her hands curled into fists, and she dug her nails deep into her palms, her hands trembling with the effort just to feel something other than the sting of degradation that she was now forced to carry with her.

        The muffled voices from within the room became raised, and Cecilia, remembering that she no longer had the leisure to stand around feeling sorry for herself, quickly sniffed, wiped her eyes with the crumpled front of her shirt, and reached for the door handle. She pulled, and with a woosh of air, she revealed a small dark room that contained two more doors with a small reinforced window towards the top of each. She knew well by this point that one led into the interrogation room itself, while the other led into the observation room behind the mirror.

        She tried the observation room’s handle.

        Locked.

        Cecilia swore under her breath, reaching slowly for the other handle instead. She rapidly devised an alibi for any possible accusation they could throw at her this time.

        She took hold of the handle and pushed the door inwards. It gave easier than she expected, and she staggered forward into a room nearly identical to the one she had become all too familiar with. 

        The room was abuzz with chatter. This occasion was graced by many of the same suited figures that had watched her from the shadows mere hours earlier. Some had been standing directly in front of the door as she entered, blocking her view of the rest of the room behind their wall of black and navy blue suits. A few turned to look at the recent disturbance as she clumsily tumbled into the room behind them.

        Cecilia tried to ignore their stares as she ducked around them towards where she assumed Lochte would be.

        She emerged from the small congregation in the corner of the room to see the usual arrangement of a table and chair at the center. At it sat a dark-haired man, his head hung low and his hands bound behind his back. An unlucky Soviet, Cecilia guessed, from the look of his hastily laced military style boots and sand-colored trousers, which were marked with smears of darkened blood and gritty brown dirt.

        She had been starting to wonder what they did with Soviets around here, and figured that she was probably about to find out.

        A soldier dressed similarly to Davy–and rivaling him in sheer mass–had two large, sooty hands clamped firmly down on the Soviet’s shoulders from behind, as if he was afraid this visibly exhausted young captive would simply spirit himself away at any given moment. The large soldier’s eyes met Cecilia’s for a moment before his dark irises quickly shifted away. Cecilia followed his gaze.

        Lochte stood at the head of the room, entrenched in an exchange with Davy that was imperceptible over the murmur of the others around them. There was a gesture in the midst of their conversation toward the table in the middle, and Cecilia now noticed that several items and papers had been strewn across it.

        The captive paid his audience no mind. His head remained low so that most of his face was hidden in shadow, his lips subtly pressing and parting to form words no one could hear. Dried blood and grime streaked across his skin.

        Cecilia crossed the room towards Lochte. Davy, noticing her approach, immediately cut short whatever he was in the middle of saying. Lochte turned.

        “Ms. Whitaker.” His greeting was polite, but the casually amiable demeanor she had conversed with earlier was gone. Deep creases had formed upon his brow, and his eyes were half-shadowed under heavy lids. His arms were crossed, the knuckle of his index finger gingerly propped up under his chin.

        There was a weighted pause, and Cecilia panicked momentarily as she thought of the most appropriate way to respond to her new employer in this very unfamiliar situation she had been thrust into.

        “Is there something I can do?” she said finally. The question felt so childish.

        Lochte gave a nod toward the table.

        “Take a look. I’d very much like to know if anything stands out to you.”

        Cecilia blinked. She had heard his words clearly but was failing to understand what exactly he meant. 

        “On the table,” Lochte offered. His direction did nothing to clear up her confusion.

        Cecilia’s lips parted, and she looked from Lochte to Davy and back again, wondering if there was some vital piece of information she was missing. Both of them looked at her expectantly, their expressions devoid of any explanation.

        Stands out?

        This had to be some sort of elaborate test.

        Knowing that each second further that she spent opening and closing her mouth like a fish did nothing to help her precarious position, she turned her sights to the table, slowly approaching it.

        Strewn across its metal face were several Polaroids and sheets of typewritten papers. A cassette tape and a watch, both stained with blood, were also part of the collection. 

        Cecilia stood there for a moment, eyeing the captive that sat hunched on the other side.

        “Who is this?” she said over her shoulder without taking her eyes off him. 

        Either no one heard her over the murmur of voices, or she was not privy to an answer.

        She reached first for the cassette, careful to hold it by a corner unmarked by blood. She held it up to the light, flipping it over to see the other side. Indiscernible Cyrillic and what appeared to be some sort of Arabic script had been hastily scrawled across its face, along with two words in English:

        “For John.”

        Cecilia carefully turned it in her fingers, finding the factory etching indicating its serial and lot information. It was clearly manufactured in the Soviet Union.

        She gingerly set it down on the table and looked to the Polaroid that lay closest to her, picking it up next.

        Two figures graced the glossy polymer surface. A scruffy, mustached man in a Soviet undershirt leaned one arm on the shoulder of an older, graying man with glasses. Their teeth were bared in genuine smiles. At the bottom of the Polaroid was a single hastily written word in Cyrillic. The Russian language was lost on her, but she was familiar enough with the phonetics of each character to at least attempt a pronunciation. She sounded out the word under her breath.

        “Row… lahn…”

        In a sudden flurry of movement, the captive’s head jolted upwards, and he burst forward against his restraints. Cecilia jumped back, dropping the photo. 

        “Hey!” the soldier behind the captive boomed, clapping his hands down against his shoulders harder than before. The room went silent as all eyes turned upon the brief scuffle.

        Cecilia’s mouth hung open as her heart pounded, her hand still half-raised in a meager reaction of defense. She stared incredulously at the captive, whose own piercing glare bore straight back into her as his chest rose and fell rapidly.

        Red, angry blood vessels spidered inward toward gray irises. His fiery gaze suddenly grew unfocused for a moment, as if his attention had been claimed by something just barely in front of Cecilia. His eyelids drooped, and his head bobbed downwards slightly, fighting the pull of an invisible weight hung about his neck. His expression, previously wrought with a mask of undeniable hatred for all in the room, softened–almost pleadingly–as his eyes refocused on Cecilia’s.

        “Who is this?” Cecilia said again, unable to tear her eyes from this individual before her.

        “If you would, Mrs. Whitaker… The items on the table, please.”

        Cecilia swallowed, stepping carefully toward the table once more. The captive’s eyes followed her movements this time. 

        She reached for one of the papers and quickly slid it closer to her so that she could maintain as much distance as possible between herself and this frenzied man. She swiftly plucked it from the edge of the table and brought it to her face, angling it under the light. 

        It was a photocopy of a CIA document.

        Her eyes locked onto the single photo upon it. It was a headshot of a man similar in appearance to the older one in the Polaroid, perhaps even one in the same. Her eyes searched the paper for a name.

        Dr. Viktor Nikolaev.

        Her hand fell limply to her side, still holding the paper. She spun to face Lochte. His chin was still perched upon his knuckle, and his eyes narrowed as he watched her reaction, saying nothing.

        “He’s alive,” Cecilia said breathlessly.

        “Not anymore.” Davy stepped forward. He slid a stack of large photos across the surface of the table. 

        Cecilia’s peripherals caught a flash of crimson blood against pale flesh on the topmost photo, and she quickly looked away, her stomach lurching. 

        “Those were taken tonight,” Davy said, stepping back into line with Lochte.

        Cecilia exhaled and decided to chance another look. She stepped closer, gently spreading the photos across the table with the tips of her fingers as if the images themselves were covered in the gore they displayed. She tried to mentally block out the gruesome flash-lit shots of blood-drained flesh torn by bullets, focusing instead on the parchment-white face of the victim.

        It was, without a doubt, the same man.

        A sound akin to a choked whimper suddenly rose and died in the captive’s throat. His jaw was clenched as he looked down upon the images splayed out before him, his eyes bleary. Beads of sweat had begun to form on his brow. 

        He looked like he was about to be sick.

        “What do you know about Nikolaev?” Lochte finally spoke from behind her.

        Cecilia’s eyes fell from the images of the doctor’s fate and came to a rest on the captive’s worn boots that peeked just barely out from under the table.

        “He was an associate of Dr. Aleksandr Abramov,” Cecilia said distractedly. “Abramov told me that he went missing in the sixties. The government had referred to it as a ‘reassignment’... Abramov figured it was the KGB…” Cecilia’s thoughts frayed as she turned her attention back to the other documents on the table with a sudden renewed interest, picking them up one by one and skimming through the information on them.

        The silence was heavy. The only sound that cut through it was the ragged, wheezing breaths the captive drew in and out, his head hung low again. 

        Cecilia’s brow furrowed as she flipped through the last document. 

        “There’s no mention here of his role in the investigation–In 1958,” she said, glancing back over the other pages. “The CIA knows about that, don’t they?”

        “What investigation?” Lochte said, his hand dropping from his chin.

        Cecilia turned to face him. “In 1957, there was–” She exhaled, nixing her usual long-winded recount of the incident and opting instead for a condensed version, remembering who her audience was. “Four scientists were killed when they were studying an improperly stored sample of volcanic rock containing caela molecules. Radiation exposure.” She had recited this spiel more times than she could count. She had only written an entire dissertation about it, after all. Hadn’t they read it?

        “The Scientific Research Council opened an investigation–and Nikolaev was one of the scientists assigned to investigate it. The Council's official statement was that gamma radiation poisoning had been the cause of death–but Dr. Abramov and I always believed that conclusion was wrong. It was caela radiation.” Cecilia paused to catch her breath, looking into the sea of faces that stared back at her as if she was insane.         “Nikolaev must have known, too...” she said, looking back at the photos on the table. Uneasiness tugged at her gut as she began to realize what this meant.

        She looked up at the captive. A new fire burst to life within her, flames licking up into her throat with a rage she couldn’t keep down. She stomped forward. 

        “You killed him, didn’t you?!” she spat, casting aside with disgust the shred of pity she had felt for the man when she had initially entered the room. The captive barely looked up from under his brow at her, silently weathering the malice she now cast at him. Only thin white slivers of his eyes were visible under his thick, dark eyebrows.

        “Who told you to do it–Kaneshiro? Fucking bastard–” She spat, shedding her air of civility. She no longer cared about what these useless suits thought about her–

        A hand on her shoulder gently pulled her back. 

        “That’s quite enough, Ms. Whitaker.”

        Tears stung in Cecilia’s eyes. Just when she thought she couldn’t feel any more alone… Dr. Nikolaev–someone who perhaps could have shared what he knew, or helped her to make sense of everything that happened–had been living under her nose this whole time. And now he was dead. 

        She was cursed. All of this could have been avoided if she had acted sooner.

        Lochte stepped forward next to her, his hand still on her shoulder.

        “Do you recall what the nature of Nikolaev’s work was before he was reassigned?” he said.

        Cecilia exhaled, trying to regain her composure. A wave of embarrassment washed over her for her outburst. Her eyes felt wet, her cheeks hot. Lochte gave her shoulder a reassuring squeeze. 

        “Um,” Cecilia said quietly, rubbing her forehead as she tried to remember what Abramov had told her. All of this had been relayed to her in casual correspondence, after all. Thankfully, her headache was finally beginning to dissipate, and she was able to pull fragments of letters and reports from her memory. “Some sort of… biological research. Mice, gerbils, pigs… That sort of thing–Listen, I’m–I’m sorry. I don’t know more than that.” She knit her brow in apology, her hand falling back to her side.

        “That’s quite alright. Thank you,” Lochte said, stepping past her and toward the captive, who scowled up at Lochte, his eyes red and puffy. 

        It was only now that Cecilia realized this young man must have been no older than herself. Even from his slouched, seated posture, she could tell that he was as tall and well-built as any of the soldiers here at Vanguard, but a boyish face betrayed his figure.

        Lochte sighed, sliding his hands into his pockets as he looked down at him. 

        “How long had you been in contact with Nikolaev before–”

        “Why would I kill my own father?” the captive finally said, his jaw set. Cecilia was stunned by his enunciation despite the strained hoarseness of his voice; he must have studied the intricacies of Western linguistics so closely that he was able to mimic a shockingly convincing American accent relatively easily.

        “Nikolaev had no children–”

        “His name was Rolan!” The young man shouted, spit flying from his lips. He bucked forward against the soldier’s grip on his shoulder desperately. “And the Soviets that killed him are out there–They are out there–” His eyes grew wild as he fought his restraints, his breaths hissing through clenched teeth. 

        Cecilia glanced over at Davy for some sort of indication of how she was supposed to be reacting to these developments. His eyes were fixed squarely on the young man, his brow creased but his expression otherwise unclear as he watched him struggle. 

        “He really does believe Nikolaev’s name was Rolan,” Davy said to Lochte. “You’re not going to be able to get around that.”

        The young man hung his head defeatedly, shaking it slowly from side to side. His teeth were bared in a pained grimace.

        “Move the table,” Lochte said, unbuttoning the sleeves of his silken blue shirt and rolling them up to his elbows.

        Davy strode forward and took the metal table by the edge. There was a teeth-clattering screech as the table legs skipped and scraped over the floor. With a final, loud shove, Davy pushed it to the wall.

        Lochte wasted no time. One of his hands shot forward like a cobra and he grasped the captive firmly by the jaw, his thumb and fingers deeply indenting the young man’s grungy cheeks. The captive’s lip snarled like that of a muzzled animal, helpless to fight back. With a tug, Lochte forced the young man’s head slowly to one side, then the other. Light glistened from the captive’s sweat-streaked skin as his head was turned against his will, his eyes tracking Lochte’s face.

        “How old are you, mal’chik?” Lochte pondered in a low voice, almost to himself. He didn’t seem to expect an answer, and he wasn’t given one. His lips pursed tightly.

        Cecilia shifted her gaze to pass across the other figures in the room now that she was no longer the one under their scrutiny. They all seemed to be some variation of Horne in terms of their attire, their hair, their vaguely appetent bearing, and their most likely soul-sucking profession. She wondered how they all seemed to have so little to do that they could afford to stand around in an interrogation room all day. There was no doubt that they were all paid handsomely for their great sacrifice, judging by the polished gold timepieces on their wrists and the engraved cufflinks on the sleeves of their tailored jackets.

        “Where is the ax?” Lochte said, calling Cecilia’s attention back to the center of the room. Lochte’s query was directed at the others, but his attention was still focused on the face of the young man.

        Davy turned back toward the mirror behind him, stooping to collect something from the floor. Cecilia couldn’t see around the suited men that loitered between them, and she stepped to the side to try to get a better look just as Davy straightened back up, producing a simple woodcutter’s ax. Her mouth drooped.

        Surely they wouldn’t…

        Davy held it out with his gloved hand sandwiching the dull side of the blade, offering the handle to Lochte. Under the light, Cecilia could see veins of red that webbed along it, blood that had soaked deep into the porous grain of the worn wood. Even the blade itself was smeared with scarlet at its base. Cecilia’s stomach twisted into a knot. 

        Lochte took the ax, finally breaking his eye contact with the captive to look down at the bloodstained weapon he had just been handed. He passed a hand slowly along the length of its handle, his fingers moving over the knots and grooves of the wood.

        Cecilia had no intention of sticking around to watch whatever they were about to do. With her heart in her throat, she automatically turned back in the direction of the door without a second thought, pushing her way through the gathering of businessmen who grumbled and huffed as she jostled them aside.

        “Whitaker–”

        She whirled around to see whose clipped command had given away her attempt to abscond.

        Davy was firing a sideways glare at her from the other side of the room, daring her to continue any further behind Lochte’s turned back.

        The warning he had so forcefully–but perhaps honestly, she now began to realize–imparted to her in the hallway moments prior began to gnaw at her fortitude.

        Cecilia gritted her teeth and dropped her shoulders, slowly returning to where she had stood before, preparing herself for whatever she was going to have to witness. Apparently satisfied, Davy turned his eyes back to the situation at hand.

        Lochte sank to a crouch in front of the captive, dipping his head to the side slightly to ensure that the young man was giving him his attention. He held the ax between his two hands, unbothered by the blood that had seeped onto them from the wood. He raised it slightly.

        “This is Soviet blood.” He looked into the captive’s eyes. “Is it not?”

        The captive’s eyes erratically flickered back and forth between Lochte’s. His chest began to heave in and out. The greased, blood-drenched lock of hair that hung down between his eyes began to flutter aggressively with each breath.

        “The one who was with you–She was killed by a Soviet round.” Lochte gestured around him with an open, bloodstained palm. “Are we Soviets?”

        The captive’s jaw clenched and unclenched, but still he said nothing. His eyes suddenly flashed up to Cecilia’s, more invigorated than they had been the first time they had done so. Realizing how intently she must have been staring, she quickly averted her gaze.

        His fleeting gesture was not lost on Lochte. His head cocked ever so slightly.

        “Our Ms. Whitaker is an American. A scientist like your Rolan.” He spoke earnestly, with measured pauses between each word. The captive’s eyes turned back to Lochte’s, veins in his neck pressing against his skin as he seemed to be physically pushing the breaths from his lungs. 

        Lochte continued, his voice becoming almost velveteen. “She seems particularly affected by his death... Perhaps, with your cooperation, she could gain some closure.” 

        The captive seemed to be shaking with the effort to keep himself from flying apart into a million pieces. His eyes turned to the floor as he expelled huffed breaths from between his teeth, sweat dripping from the ends of his hair.

        “Do you have a name? Tell her your name, mal’chik.

        This was wrong.

        Cecilia felt as though she was now the one inflicting great mental anguish on this obviously disturbed young man, as though she had been handed a knife and now–against her own will–drove it into his gut, twisting the blade. This fixation he had with Nikolaev… Taking advantage of it was wrong.

        Like a phonograph needle striking vinyl, she was suddenly trapped, forced to play this wretched song. 

        This wasn’t what she wanted.

        She stepped forward haltingly, a hand outstretched.

        “Wait–Mr. Lochte–”

        “John,” the captive said, barely a whisper. 

        There was a heavy metallic slam from behind Cecilia, and she jumped clear out of her skin, turning to see the top of the door she had come in through now wide open and pressed flat against the wall it had been thrown against. The other businessmen behind her began to turn, too, and started to clear a path for whoever had so rudely interrupted.

        Horne emerged, his face red as he gripped a sat phone with white knuckles that gestured vaguely forward. His tie was loose and askew, and the sweat stains on the front of his once-crisp shirt formed a Rorschach-esque pattern on his chest.

        “I’m sorry, Pascal,” he panted, completely winded. “CIA is taking this one direct. No more questions.”

        Voices began to rise in energetic discussion around the room. Cecilia spun back to face Lochte.

        Lochte rose, turning away from the captive. 

        “When?” he said simply.

        “Need to be at the border at 06:00.”

        Lochte flicked his wrist around, glancing at his watch. His hands were still covered in blood.

        “Very well,” he said. He turned his attention to the large soldier behind the captive. “German, if you will–Take him back to holding.”

        “Yes, sir.”

        The room fell into something barely short of chaos as the soldier pulled the young man to his feet, and the room’s other occupants began to produce their own handheld telephones seemingly out of thin air, some ducking out into the hall and others converging in small groups within the room. Cecilia hopped from foot to tiptoed foot as she tried to keep Lochte in her sight. A flash of silky robin’s egg blue disappeared into the congregation.

        “Mr. Lochte–” she called futilely. She was bumped from behind and almost fell forward. 

        Over the heads of the businessmen in front of her, she saw the soldier–German, was it?–cutting through the mob.

        There was something she had to do.

        She dove into the crowd, weaving around men in the midst of calls or conversations. Her hands slid over and prised aside cashmere and silk worth more than anything she had ever owned as she pushed through.

        There was a flash of faded white cotton in front of her, and she reached out, latching onto it.

        “Wait–” she cried, pulling herself forward. 

        She slammed into the shoulder of the young captive, who whipped his head around to confront the source of the unintentional assault. 

        “Did you do it?” Cecilia asked breathlessly. “Please–I need to know who–”

A hand clasped solidly around the back of her neck and tore her away.

        “Back,” German warned, shoving her aside faster than she could retain her balance. She tripped backward over her own feet, falling squarely onto the floor as the captive and German disappeared into the crowd once more.

        Cecilia huffed, her wrists aching from catching her fall upon them one too many times in one day. 

        “Come on. Up, now.”

        She looked up at the source of the voice next to her.

        Dr. Gambin offered his hand, his other one on his knee as he bent down to her level. She took his hand, and he hoisted her up to her feet with an exasperated grunt. 

        “Thanks,” Cecilia said quietly, feeling awful for putting him through the trouble.

        “I would suggest trying to get some sleep if you can,” Gambin said, watching the doorway with a knit brow. “Take the bed in the west ward–You were the only one in there, anyways.” He shook his head.         “They’ll get a nicer place lined up for you once whatever this is has blown over.”

        He, too, made his way to the door, still shaking his head. Cecilia turned back to see who was still in the room.

        Lochte alone remained. He stood by the table that had been pushed against the wall, studying the items and papers on it as he slowly wiped his hands with a handkerchief. Cecilia stepped cautiously towards him.         He seemed to have expected her to approach and turned to face her.

        “Cecilia.” His kind smile had returned, but there was something almost wistful about it. He was distracted. “I’m sorry to have put you through the wringer like this. It’s very irregular.” 

        The handkerchief he held was almost completely blood-red. Cecilia forced a tired, tight-lipped smile. Lochte neatly tucked the square of fabric back into his pocket.

        “I’m sorry that we haven’t gotten around to your arrangements–”

        “That’s alright. Dr. Gambin’s letting me stay up in the clinic for now.”

        Lochte’s lips drew into a polite smile again. Cecilia realized too late that she had just interrupted him.

        “I’m sorry–” she said quickly. “I didn’t mean to–”

        “No need to apologize.” He placed a hand on Cecilia’s shoulder, his brilliant blue eyes glinting down at her. “I appreciate your help tonight.”

        “I’m sorry you had to lose him,” Cecilia offered. “I would have liked to know what he knew of Nikolaev.”

        “I’m sorry, too,” Lochte said quietly. “Goodnight, Ms. Whitaker.” He turned his attention back to the documents, and Cecilia took it as her cue to leave. 

        As she made her way to the door, she fantasized about the thought of her head hitting a nice, soft pillow. The flashes of those bloodshot, gray eyes that kept creeping into her mind now began to melt into her sleepy stupor as she shuffled up to the door and pulled it open. 

        She stopped in the darkness of the entry room, completely alone.

        Completely alone. No one around to push her, prod her, lead her, watch her.

        She was finally free.

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