There is no chance, no destiny, no fate, that can hinder or control the firm resolve of a determined soul. — Ella Wheeler Wilcox
26 SEPTEMBER 2007
Chuck Bartowski’s alarm rang. He didn’t need it—he’d been awake for an hour, staring at the underside of the bunk above his, his eyes empty, his brain far away. When the blare cut into the silence, he reached without looking and shut the beastly thing off. He gave himself two more minutes personal time before slowly and creakily rolling out of the bed.
As always, it was a big mistake. The cold air rushed in the instant he unzipped the sleeping bag, surrounding him and making him shiver. For the next eighteen hours, he would receive only a few minutes of true warmth.
He left his parka on the hook. To call the space “contained” was stretching it—the bunker was tiny, barely room for a regular-sized person to walk around with anything approaching comfort. Chuck, who’d outgrown most of the population as a teenager, always had to duck. He winced as he sat down in the narrow space between the bunks—the floor was always frigid. With the ease of long habit and routine, he began to stretch. With October just around the corner, things were already beginning to cool, which meant that it took his muscles that much longer to limber out so that he could go through his morning routine.
Suitably stretched, he rose and began moving with the fluidity of the Tai Chi he’d altered for himself. He was hampered somewhat by the lack of space, but he’d long grown used to that. He closed his eyes and just tuned everything out—random chatter from his current projects, the regular undercurrent of minor claustrophobia and misery and angst, the constant wonder. Inside his head, it grew blissfully silent.
Until the alarm rang again, signaling that it was time to shower, eat, and face the day.
He stepped through a steel door and into the only properly-heated room in the bunker, hurrying so that he wouldn’t let too much heat out. He stripped out of his gear. Even though he’d left the parka outside, he still wore thermal underwear, an ancient Army T-shirt, sweatpants, and the makeshift padding he’d crafted from his old partners’ rejected parkas. It made him look like the kid who’d enjoyed far too many cupcakes, but it beat freezing to death. He stowed each article with care on the shelves he’d constructed just inside the heat tube, where they wouldn’t get wet while he showered. And turning the heat on full, he stepped into the narrow shower to scald himself for exactly fourteen minutes.
Any longer than that and he would be late for his shift.
The worst thing about everything was the monotony. Day-in, day-out, the same routine. Wake up, perform exercises to keep from going crazy. Shower. Report into work, receive the day’s assignments. Work until 17:30. Log off, spend two hours surfing the internet through a firewall. Eat dinner. Read a book. Go to bed. He was allowed to leave the bunker twice a month to go into the small town seven kilometers away, but in the winter, it was hardly worth fighting the cold. And he didn’t speak Russian. He used the two trips just to stretch out his legs, though he hadn’t gone the last couple of months. Things just kept coming up.
Fully dressed, hair as dry as it could get—it was almost time to shave his head so that his hair wouldn’t be wet for too long in the mornings—Chuck hurried out of the heat tube and crossed to the opposite end of the bunk room. He pushed through another steel door into the kitchen. A table ate up most of the room; they’d wedged a cooling unit in the corner to store perishables. Not that there was much perishable about military MREs.
Chuck opted for the minestrone for breakfast. He was due for a new shipment soon, and his options were limited to the foods he’d put off eating. Why did he do this to himself? He’d at least saved the muffins that had come with this last shipment for a record six days.
Clutching the MRE, he continued on through the kitchen to the office. It might have been the roomiest section of the bunker, had the government not seen fit to wedge every type of computer monitor along one wall, with a fearsome old soviet desk taking up whatever space was leftover. Overhead, the lights washed everything with the sickening gray sort of tinge Chuck found popular in horror movies where a zombie or two might show up to snack on his brain.
He plopped into the chair, grateful that the padding he’d sacrificed for it at least made the thing comfortable. The single monitor on the desk was black, save for one small line of green text.
Chuck tapped his login information, hit enter, and didn’t bother to sigh. Just another day in the wonderful wilds of Siberia.
26 SEPTEMBER 2007
Chuck had just finished decrypting the latest in a series of inter-agency emails for his boss—the mysteriously named Mr. Carver—when the email arrived. He took no notice of it at first. Personal emails from the few contacts he was allowed to reach out to were restricted to a small computer monitor off to the side. He did his primary work on a huge flat-screen monitor just above his head on the wall, controlling everything through the monitor on the desk. He heard the chirp of an incoming email, but ignored it to finish watching the YouTube video that Mr. Carver had emailed to him. A couple more viewings, slowed to frame-by-frame at points, confirmed that there were no hidden coding within the video. Chuck felt confident in reporting to Mr. Carver that no, the YouTube video about the cute kittens falling into a birdbath was not secretly a training video for a liberal Jihadist terrorist cell.
It was days like these, he thought as he finished the report and sent it whizzing away into the ether, that made all the difference. Because he was rotting away in a bunker in Siberia, the world was safe from kitten-faced propaganda.
His wristwatch—a gift from Uncle Sam—beeped, letting him know that his fifteen-minute break for the morning had arrived. Chuck stretched his shoulders, his back. The office was the only room in the place where he could stand without having to duck, which meant that for several hours a day, he worked on his feet, controlling the computers with a joystick he’d modified out of sheer boredom. He stood now and began to shake out his legs.
The blinking email icon caught his attention. Excitement—finally something to break the monotony!—had him scrambling to check.
Bryce Larkin. Now that was odd. His old roommate and co-CIA agent usually didn’t get in touch via email. It fit with the super secret agent lifestyle that Bryce wouldn’t want much hard copy that could connect him to anything. And he understood Chuck’s situation, so more often than not he called via satellite phone. Sometimes even to catch up.
Chuck clicked the email open. There wasn’t a subject or even any text in the body. Just quite a large attachment.
Standford.zrk? What kind of file was that? Chuck checked his watch—11 minutes left of his break. Plenty of time to check the email and see what was going on. He double-clicked the attachment, surprised when the file opened without needing to be sent through a cipher. Immediately, the screen went black, and words scrolled across.
The Terrible Troll Raises His Sword.
Zork? Bryce wanted to get back into Zork? Really? Chuck blinked at the computer screen a couple of times. Where on earth were Bryce Larkin and Sarah Walker that Bryce had time to reignite old computer games from their Stanford days? Apparently Chuck’s old roommate and his classic beauty of a partner had some downtime.
Well, if Bryce wanted to bring up Zork again, Chuck was game. He shrugged to himself a little as he searched his memory and typed, “Attack…troll…with…nasty…knife.”
The screen went black again.
And now, Chuck thought, here comes the battle, and maybe Bryce has programmed a little something extra—
Only the battle never came. Instead, there was a flicker—a picture of binoculars? Another picture—a guy getting his eye inspected, athletes on a track, dogs running, the pope. Apple pie. Chuck took a step back, trying to figure out exactly what was going on. Something strange seemed to be happening inside his head. Everything in his brain bogged down, became logy. He tried to look away from the screen, but couldn’t pull his gaze away. So he watched, standing, while image after image, video after video, blurred and seared and burned into his mind. Before long, it all became a blur. He didn’t hear his watch beep, didn’t see the multitude of emails and text messages from Mr. Carver. He just stood for hours with his eyes glued to the screen—
Until the computer clicked off on its own.
Chuck did the only thing he could. He passed out.
26 SEPTEMBER 2007
Repeated chirping drove Chuck out of the fog and into the cold. Everything in his body ached—his muscles in particular, as he’d apparently slid down the wall and now lay in a cockamamie position, legs spread, one arm trapped behind him, head lolling on one shoulder. Chuck lifted his head on his sore neck and shook it as he looked around for the source of the chirping.
Oh. Right. He’d set the satellite phone on the wall to chirp rather than ring—it startled him less that way.
Chuck slowly climbed to his feet, feeling every part of his body in excruciating detail as he did so. What on earth had happened? Had he passed out? Had he slipped and hit his head? When he closed his eyes, there were strange images, black and white and grainy like old pictures, burned into the backs of his eyelids. Chuck shook his head to make them go away as he picked up the phone.
“Tell them you fell and hit your head.”
Chuck blinked. “Bryce? What the—”
“Tell them not to send medical.”
And Chuck was left with a dial tone.
Now that was cryptic. Confused, Chuck stared first at the phone in his hand and then at the computer monitors, all of which were blinking with alerts. The monitor with his private email had gone blank.
Mr. Carver, it appeared, seemed to be beside himself. AGENT GEORGES flashed over four of the five monitors, blinking urgently. REPORT IN RE: STATUS.
Chuck shook his head to clear it as he typed a response. I’m fine, he typed, ignoring formality. Just slipped and hit my head.
Negative. Just a bump. I’ll put some ice on it.
ARE YOU CERTAIN?
What on earth was Bryce getting at? First the weird email, now the mysterious phone call. But the guy had never steered Chuck wrong. When they’d both been recruited for CIA out of Stanford, Bryce had been his wingman. He’d looked out for Chuck the whole time. Chuck had no reason to start distrusting him now.
I’m fine, he typed again. Agent has sufficient medical supplies to handle problem on sight. Do not need medical.
There was a pause on Mr. Carver’s end. Finally, UNDERSTOOD blinked across all screens. DOES AGENT REQUIRE MEDICAL LEAVE?
Did he? Chuck pondered it for a minute. Yes, his head felt heavy, as though somebody had taken his brain away and replaced it with a newer model made out of lead. And yes, he ached all over from the fall. But nothing that would affect his work.
No, he typed in. I’ll take some pain meds and make up lost time. Please send missed assignments.
It would help keep things off his mind while he waited for Bryce to get over being Agent Ambiguous and get on with the damn explanation. He pulled up the first task—parse another YouTube video—and settled in to work. The video was the latest hit single of some European pop group, supposed to be popular in Israel and hot spots in the Middle East. It seemed like a bunch of too-young hipsters attempting to be cool and failing. As Chuck watched, the video cut to a close-up of the bass guitarist—
It crushed him like a sledge-hammer between the eyes. Everything in his brain ground to a halt—he stared blankly at the wall while a series of images, video, and audio files ran across his brain like it was some sort of demented database.
A picture of a seal balancing a ball on its nose. Video of two women in Victorian dresses strolling along a jumpy London street. NAME: Badrun Farroway. ALIAS: Nick Jones. Dual Citizen of Iran and the United States, born to American father and Iranian mother. Practicing Shiite. Suspected of using record sales to funnel money to alleged terrorists in Kuwait—
The surge of information made his head throb. Chuck gasped in air and stabbed the space bar, stopping the playback. Ten seconds had elapsed since the shot in question.
Where on earth had that come from?! He was good at his job, good at recognizing repeat offenders and catching odd bits of code within videos and other media sources. But never had anything hit with such a deluge of information before. He was positive he’d never even heard of this so-called terrorist funder, Badrun Farroway. So why did Farroway’s dossier exist in his head now?
And how on earth could he explain this to Mr. Carver? In the end, Chuck red-flagged the video, made up a reason, and put in a request for background checks to be done on the band members, particularly the guitar players. He even included a lame joke about always suspecting guitar players, just so that Mr. Carver wouldn’t find anything suspicious.
It happened three more times. Each experience left him feeling vaguely ill, confused, and miserable. Why on earth wasn’t Bryce calling to explain things? What was going on out there?
26 SEPTEMBER 2007
The alarm rang. Chuck swatted it off. He continued to lie in bed, though he wasn’t staring at the underside of the bunk above his. No, his mind was racing too much for his eyes to really see anything. He’d spent the entire night just staring into the darkness, wondering, and fretting, and frankly, freaking out.
Bryce had yet to call.
Overhead, the lights flickered on with the usual thrum. Chuck sighed as the horror movie lighting returned, thinking of sunny, warm Burbank, where his sister and his best friend were likely just settling down for the night while he rose to face his day. An equally warm and sunny place where a woman he swore never to think about was probably doing the same.
Chuck rolled out of bed and began to stretch, shivering. Why hadn’t the government fixed up the bunker if they were going to stash agents there long-term? And where the hell was Bryce with his explanation?
He waved his arms, controlling the movements and his breathing. Because it was an even day, he stuck to the short routine because he would have to do push-ups and sit-ups today as well. He kept the padding and the insulated pants on because he’d added hooks for extra weights, things around the bunker he’d modified to add resistance when it was obvious he’d surpassed the actual weights Brent had left behind.
Brent was one of the four people he’d seen in the past three years, another CIA analyst that had been bunked in Bunker 77142135 out in the cold darkness of Siberia. He’d done his obligatory three month tour, wedged into the tiny space with Chuck. They hadn’t fought. It was hard to fight when you didn’t talk at all—as he and Brent hadn’t after the first couple of weeks. It had been exactly the same way with Paul, Brent’s predecessor.
When Brent had been transferred to another bunker closer to Moscow, nobody had come to replace him. Budget cuts, Chuck had figured at the time. He wondered when they considered his own time to be up, but Mr. Carver hadn’t mentioned anything about reassignments, and Chuck knew better than to ask.
He pushed everything from his mind and instead relaxed into the movement. He’d never really come close to being one with his Chi or even balancing it or whatever, but the meditation helped. It kept him from climbing up the walls and gnawing on the doorknobs. It made him stanch the impulses that made him want to ignore the work that helped the CIA protect America, and just sit in the corner and rock.
His watch beeped. Chuck took one last calming breath and began hooking his modified weights onto his torso, which would add a fair bit of resistance to his push ups by the time he finished. He turned to reach for the last weight—
And just like that, she was standing in the doorway.
With a gun pointed right at his chest.
17 NOVEMBER 2005
Chuck input the last line of data into his report, scanned it absently for typos or anything that would have him brought up in front of a committee. Seeing nothing, he sent it off to the elusive Mr. Carver, the new boss that had arrived a few days before via the hotlink to the bunker. He was used to receiving an immediate reply—just an acknowledgement or the next assignment if he hadn’t been given a list of orders for the day. Today, Mr. Carver remained oddly silent for a full fifteen minutes.
Chuck frowned. Had the hotlink gone down? He half-rose to check on the connections to his servers, but a line of green text blinked across the monitor.
AGENT GRANTED 72 HOURS LEAVE. ENJOY YOUR VACATION, JACKSON GEORGES.
Vacation? Chuck rubbed his eyes, wondering if they were starting to go bad from staring at screens and soldering projects all day. But the line didn’t change.
Another line blinked and joined the first.
NOT AUTHORIZED TO LEAVE LOCATION.
Well, that was more like the US Government Chuck knew and hated. He sighed. So, great. He had 72 hours of leave where he couldn’t actually leave. He’d been putting in for time off, hoping to maybe travel into Moscow so that he could see the famous Red Square and all of the things he’d been dreaming about for years.
Worst. Vacation. Ever.
Shrugging to himself, Chuck switched the monitor feeds so that his personal computer took over the giant monitor above his head. Nothing called like Call of Duty. He played under an alias he’d always liked—Carmichael…Charles Carmichael—but he didn’t dare try to find Morgan anywhere on the game, even though he knew his best friend’s username. The government would shut him down faster than Ellie ever did to Morgan. He’d just donned his headset to frag some noobs—
Somebody pounded on the door. Three times.
Chuck’s heart immediately started hammering. Nobody had come to that door in six months.
The pounding sounded again. He thought he heard a faint, “Chuck!” which made no sense. Even his boss thought his identity was Jackson Georges.
Chuck pulled off the headset and inched forward, wishing the government had at least provided him with a gun for this assignment. Even a tranquilizer gun. Not that he would ever shoot anything more lethal than tranquilizers, but Chuck had always found that it was easier to be menacing when you were armed.
As he drew closer, the person outside thumped the door again. “C’mon, Chuck! Open up!”
Chuck suddenly couldn’t get the door open fast enough. He’d recognized the voice. He scrambled to input the code into the panel by the single door that led to the outside world. He blinked at the flood of daylight that seared his eyeballs, and instinctively threw up an arm to protect his eyes. Even then, there was no mistaking his visitor. “Bryce!”
Bryce just about cracked his spine with the welcoming hug. “Hey! Heard you got some time off.”
“Yeah, like two minutes ago. How did you—you pulled some strings, didn’t you? Come in, come in, it’s cold out there!” And the bunker would be all that much colder for it.
It was then that Chuck noticed that Bryce was definitely not alone. Standing behind his best friend in the tunnel, hands tucked politely into her pockets—though that may have been the cold, come to think of it—was the milk-fed version of Lindsay Fünke.
“Oh,” Chuck managed.
Bryce and Lindsay Fünke squeezed past him into the narrow entrance. He hastened to shut the door behind them, closing all three into a very tiny space. To cover up some of the awkwardness, he asked, “How’d you two get by the perimeter? The alarm never went off.”
“That was all Sarah,” Bryce said, jerking his head at Lindsay Fünke. “Sarah, this is Chuck Bartowski, the best wingman a guy could have. Chuck, my partner, Sarah Walker.”
“It’s nice to meet you,” Chuck said, reaching around Bryce.
She shifted her bag and shook the hand he offered. “Likewise. Um, is there somewhere we can put our bags? It’s been a long day.”
Why she would send a death glare Bryce’s way as she said that, Chuck didn’t know. He decided to ignore that particular elephant making the limited space even smaller and cleared his throat. “Right. Good point. Let me give you the tour, show you where you can drop your stuff. Though I warn you, it’ll be a short tour.”
He wedged himself between the pair so that he could get past and lead the way. Why on earth did it feel like the oxygen inside the bunker had been cut in half?
“How long, uh, are you two planning to stay?”
He missed the look that Bryce and Sarah exchanged behind his back. “A couple of days, if that’s cool with you,” Bryce said, following close on his heels.
The smile Chuck shot over his shoulder was dazzling. “Are you kidding? It’s fantastic! I’ve been going stir-crazy. What, were you guys in the neighborhood or something?”
“Yeah, something like that.”
Chuck showed off first the office, leading them into the kitchen—and recommending that they drop their gear on the table since the bunk had limited space—before he finished off the grand tour in the bunk room. “And this is it,” he announced. “Neither of you gets claustrophobic, right?”
Bryce assured him that both were fine. “This is really it?” Sarah, who hadn’t said much, wondered. Both she and Bryce were just tall enough to avoid stooping forward, but Chuck had to duck. “You live here all the time?”
“Home sweet home,” Chuck confirmed. “There’s a lot more room in the kitchen—I can make some coffee if you two want to warm up. And there’s, um, MREs if you’re hungry—”
“Don’t worry. I got the food situation taken care of.” Bryce patted a satchel he hadn’t deposited in the kitchen. He removed something and handed it to Chuck. “Got your favorite, buddy.”
“You are my hero,” Chuck decided, wanting to weep at the sight of the can in his hand.
Sarah leaned around her partner to get a better look. “You brought him Spaghetti-Os?”
“Food of the gods,” Chuck corrected. He set the can reverently on the top bunk, which he had started to use for storage after Brent’s departure. The room contained only two narrow bunks, which meant he’d need to clean the place out. He supposed he’d just have to sleep in his office chair tonight. It wouldn’t be the first time.
“Probably best we hang out in here,” Chuck decided, squeezing into the kitchen. He indicated that the others should take the two chairs already present and wheeled his desk chair in to join them. “Tell me news of the outside!”
17 NOVEMBER 2005
“So to make a long story short, neither of us is allowed back in Paraguay, and no, we still don’t know what happened to the donkey. Though rumors of his being sighted as far as Albuquerque abound.”
Chuck choked on his cocoa. Though he would normally have gone with coffee, making cocoa had seemed homier somehow. And he didn’t want to subject either of his visitors to the bunker coffee until he absolutely had to. “They kicked you out of the country?!”
“It was recommended,” Sarah said, speaking up for the first time in over an hour, “that we leave. Recommended strongly.”
“With guns,” Bryce added.
Chuck shook his head. “You two live the coolest life,” he decided. “You really took out six guys by yourself, Sarah?”
She crossed her arms. “It was more like eight.”
“Just another day’s work.” Sarah rose abruptly. “I’m kind of tired. Do you gentlemen mind if I take a nap?”
Chuck stood as well. “Sure—uh, do you need anything? You should take the bottom bunk, it’s the more comfortable of the two. I can go into storage and get you a different sleeping bag, though I promise I shower every day, so the one in the bunk should at least be marginally clean.”
“It’s fine. Thanks.” Sarah slipped by him without another word.
Chuck waited until she had closed the door behind her before he turned to Bryce, eyebrows disappearing into his hairline. “I don’t think your partner likes me much, buddy.”
But Bryce sighed, most of the jollity disappearing now that Sarah had gone. He looked tired, Chuck observed, bone-weary. The only time Chuck had ever seen him like that had been back at Stanford during midterms their last semester together. “It’s not you,” Bryce said, rubbing both hands up the back of his head. “She’s pissed at me and she has every right to be. I promised her we’d be going to Cabo.”
“And you dragged her here instead?” Chuck outright gaped. “Are you an idiot?”
“I wanted her to meet you.” Bryce rose to clean out their used mugs. “I should probably tell you now—I got permission from Headquarters to get you satellite access.”
“Because Sarah and I’ve run into trouble before without dedicated tech support. And you’ve got all the know-how and skills to assist.”
“Really? Does that mean I get to go into the field with you?” A sunbeam of hope felt glorious after months and months of darkness. Chuck sat up.
But Bryce squashed all of that with just a small shake of his head. He at least had the decency to look apologetic. “It’s too dangerous since you never finished your training.”
And whose choice was that? It had always rankled that Chuck had been dragged out of his training camp in the middle of the night and shipped off. Sure, he’d been a little slower on some of the physical aspects, and shooting a gun freaked him out, but he’d been catching up. There was absolutely no reason to yank him out so suddenly or completely. Just like there was no reason they should have ever stuck him in a bunker. He wouldn’t have talked about his work if they’d just let him work out of a normal office.
He had some discretion, after all.
Still, since Bryce was a friend and doing him a solid, he tried to hide his dejection. “So I’ll be remote tech support,” he said. “Doing what exactly?”
“Recon, intel. Getting us satellite feeds, maybe do a little hacking if things get hairy. I won’t always be the one able to make the call, so I wanted you and Sarah to meet up. I promise you she’s usually a lot warmer.”
“Literally,” Chuck muttered under his breath. “Please tell me you at least gave the woman some warning that she was going to be dragged out to visit a madman in the middle of Siberia?”
“Oh, Bryce, you’re such a dead man walking.” Chuck shook his head. “Wanna see the setup of one Charles Bartowski, cover name Jackson Georges, since you might be placing your life in the hands of my very trusty computer skills?”
“Wasn’t Jackson Georges NSA?”
“Let’s not quibble over details.”
“Didn’t he also go mad?”
“Bryce, that’s the epitome of quibbling.”
All right, all right. Lead on.”
26 SEPTEMBER 2007
“Sarah?” Chuck blinked, unable to believe he was actually seeing what was right in front of him. When had the hallucinations begun to set in? And why was he hallucinating a woman with a gun and not something much more desirable, like lingerie instead of a thick gray parka? Was this what paranoia felt like? “Sarah Walker? What are you doing—”
“Where is he?” Sarah’s tone brooked no room for argument or disobedience.
He knew he should be afraid—guns were bad, after all—but he was stunned too stupid at the sight of Sarah Walker, of all people, in the middle of the bunk room.
“Where is Bryce, Chuck? I know you were helping him with this.”
“Helping him with what?” Chuck felt like he’d been dumped in the middle of a campaign without any way to gain his bearings and, worse, unarmed. He moved his hands away from the weight he’d been hooking to his padding. “What are you talking about? Why on earth would I know where Bryce is? That’s your job! You’re his partner, not me.”
Sarah edged forward a step. Chuck remembered Bryce’s stories about her fearsome marksmanship, but that didn’t matter so much. Even a blind man wouldn’t miss in such a small space. One twitch of one little finger and he was a dead man. “Two weeks ago, you sent him heat-scans from a satellite of a classified area in Washington D.C. Why did you do that?”
Chuck gave her a strange look. “For your mission, duh. You mean, he didn’t show them to you? He said they were for a mission he was working on, so I just assumed you were involved.”
“Did he say I was involved?”
“What? No, I don’t think so, not outright. But then, I didn’t ask. Jeez, why are you pointing a gun at me?” His brain was rapidly shaking off the feeling that he had started going all A Beautiful Mind and that the woman threatening him was indeed not a figment of his imagination. “Sarah, what’s going on? Why are you here? And where’s Bryce?”
“Has he contacted you?”
“What? No, of course he hasn’t—” The mysterious phone call from the day before leaked back in. “He sent me an email. Yesterday.”
“Did you open it?”
“Of course I did!” Chuck stared at her as though she had a few screws loose. “It’s an email from my best friend. I opened it on my break, if you’re worried about me wasting Uncle Sam’s dime—”
“I’m not.” Sarah looked troubled. “I need to see that email, Chuck.”
“Sure, no problem. You can, uh, you can put the gun away. I won’t try anything, I swear.”
“Just show me the email.”
She moved him from the bunk room to the office at gunpoint. Chuck kept his hands up, wincing every time one of his makeshift weights hit against a doorjamb or the table. He had no idea how she had breached the perimeter this time, but both she and Bryce had the code to the door, so he probably really shouldn’t be surprised. His mind whirling, he logged onto his personal computer and—
Nothing happened. The screen remained blank.
Frantic, Chuck tapped a couple more keys, and began swearing.
“What is it?” Sarah demanded.
“My hard drive! What the f—” Chuck continued typing, to no avail. Absolutely nothing happened. Chuck surged to his feet (startling Sarah into tightening her grip on the gun) to check the monitor on the wall. “There wasn’t a heat surge in here, and I just serviced that unit, which means something must have gotten onto my hard drive. But that makes no sense, I modified that virus protection software myself and—Bryce.” It hit him all at once. The last thing he’d done on that computer had been check his email and open the Zork file. Had it been some kind of virus? What if it had been a worm?!
Sarah didn’t seem to notice that he was beginning to hyperventilate. “What about Bryce?”
“I opened the email—it was just a line of text from a video game we used to play back in Stanford. I thought it was just a game, honestly, but then there were all these…pictures…”
“You saw them?” Sarah’s voice rose an octave.
Chuck just swallowed and nodded.
“And then what?”
“I passed out. I don’t know how long I was out.” There was still a knot on the back of his head that screamed whenever he put his hand anywhere near it. “When I came to, my boss, Mr. Carver, he wanted me to report and asked if I needed medical attention, but I got a call from Bryce and—”
The gun actually dug into his shoulder as Sarah jumped in surprise. “You got a what?”
“Bryce, he called me on the satellite phone—”
Switching to a single-handed grip on the gun, Sarah grabbed the phone from the wall with her free hand. She immediately began poking buttons, and cursed when the screen read “Number Blocked.”
“Sarah, what’s going on?” Chuck asked for what felt like the fifteenth time. “Ever since I opened that email, I’ve been having these, these spurts of, I don’t know, insight or something. And I know things I shouldn’t know about some very, very bad people. Why do I know that?”
Sarah stared at him for a long time. At last, at long last, she lowered the gun and shoved it back into her waistband, out of his reach. “Chuck, what I’m about to tell you is top secret. I had to call in a lot of favors to keep this suppressed, so I need your word that you’ll keep your mouth shut.”
“Done,” Chuck said. “Now tell me what the hell is going on!”
“Bryce Larkin is a rogue agent wanted by the CIA.”
“Since he broke into a secure holding facility twenty-four hours ago. He bombed a supercomputer that the NSA and the CIA are calling the Intersect—it’s a computer powerful enough to encode subliminal data into messages that can be cross-referenced by both agencies. Bryce destroyed not only the computer, but all of the files as well, but not before he downloaded them and sent them to you. He’s since gone off the grid, though he may be injured.”
“I watched the pictures,” Chuck whispered, his head spinning. It grew harder to breathe, like trying to suck in mud instead of air. “Why would he do that?”
“I don’t know. I was sent out to find him and to secure the copy he sent you.” Sarah glanced at the dead computer unit. “Was that the only copy?”
“Yes, I have a program that automatically downloads my emails to my hard drive and deletes them off the server.” Chuck pushed both hands through his hair, still trying to pull in breath. “It doesn’t make any sense, Sarah. Bryce loves his country. He’d give up his life before he would turn rogue or traitor or whatever. There’s gotta be something else going on here.”
“There’s not.” Sarah looked troubled. “But Bryce has successfully managed to make it so that you’ve now become a super-computer—and property of the United States government.”
The knowledge tore through him and, faced with a beautiful woman or not, he wanted to break down in tears. His ego simply didn’t care. “Oh, God,” he groaned. “They’re going to stick me in an underground bunker. Again. My term was up in two months! I was almost done! What the hell? Why would Bryce do this to me?”
“Right now, it looks like you and Bryce were in on this together,” Sarah told him, her calmness a direct contrast to the miring despair making everything inside of Chuck want to sink into a deep, dark oblivion.
“We weren’t,” Chuck whispered, staring at the blank monitor screens. Suddenly, it seemed absolutely vital that somebody, anybody believe him. “Sarah, I wouldn’t. Ever. Okay, so yeah, maybe the CIA wasn’t exactly what I thought it would be when they recruited me at Stanford, but I still love my country. I did this to protect my friends, my family. I’m not a traitor.”
“I believe you.”
“You—you do?” Something built up underneath Chuck’s sternum. It had been so long that it took him a minute to recognize the feeling for what it was: hope. “Really?”
“Really.” Sarah sighed and rubbed both hands over her face, obviously tired. “But now we have problems.”
“Proving to the government you’re innocent. Normally, my word would be all that they need, but with Bryce’s betrayal…” Sarah let that trail off. “Right now, you’re unprotected in the middle of nowhere.”
“And when they figure everything out…” Chuck swallowed hard. “I’m going back into a bunker for the rest of my life, aren’t I?”
“One thing at a time, Chuck.”
“The only way I’ve been able to stay here was because there was an end. I can’t do this again, Sarah. I can’t let everybody else live life and stay locked up for forever.” Chuck ran his hands through his hair. “I’ll—I’ll kill myself before that happens.”
“Chuck.” Sarah grabbed his chin with a hand to get his attention. Chuck immediately froze. It was the first human contact he’d had in nearly two years—since she’d hugged him good-bye upon leaving with Bryce, actually. He felt his heart, already speeding, race even faster. “One. Thing. At. A. Time. Okay?”
“Now, take me through everything, from the beginning, start with the plans.”
Chuck obeyed, trying to use just as much detail as he would for any of his reports for Mr. Carver. Sarah listened to everything, her arms crossed and a contemplative frown on her face.
When he’d finished, the frown deepened. “None of that helps me much, except it confirms that Bryce intended you to open the email. Otherwise he would have made the code harder.”
“I agree. And thank you, for not making fun of me for playing Zork.”
A hint of a smile—the first since she’d barged into the bunker—curled one side of Sarah’s mouth. “It doesn’t help that Bryce made you an unwitting accomplice. I’m not sure how secure this station is, or who to trust. This is big, Chuck.”
“Huge,” Chuck agreed “So how can we know who to trust?”
“All of my usual contacts are out,” Sarah muttered, mostly to herself. “I don’t know if Bryce was working with any of them, and I don’t have time to check and keep an eye on you. We’re going to have to run.”
“Pack up anything essential that you need, but be warned, we’ll need to travel quickly, so nothing heavy. Don’t worry about clothes—we can buy those along the way.”
Chuck didn’t move. “Are you crazy? We can’t just run away.”
“Chuck, if you stay here, people are coming here to arrest you. People who will have no idea what you have in your head. So they’re not going to employ the proper fail-safes to protect you or worse, they’ll be taking you for their own gain should they find out you’re a walking government database who hasn’t been through torture resistance training.”
Chuck turned a shade of green that had nothing to do with the horror movie fluorescents.
“Exactly,” Sarah said. “So we run, and we set up a meet once I’ve vetted the people to make sure they’re safe.”
“Just like that?”
“There’ll be more to it, but right now, all you have to know is, yes. Just like that. Now go, pack your things.” When he didn’t move fast enough to suit her, she hauled on his arm, yanking him to his feet in a show of strength that warned him not to cross her. He hurried through the kitchen and into the bunker, hurriedly shedding weights. He hadn’t showered yet, but that hardly seemed to matter in the grand scheme of things. Sarah had probably dealt with worse.
He’d daydreamed about leaving the bunker time and again. Had planned exactly how to do it, down to what he would wear, what he would say to the agent replacing him. Which things to flip off on the way out.
Now he ignored all of that, scrambling to grab the basics of what he’d need. His gadgets, for sure. The lightweight ones that could be slipped into pockets and not traced. He pulled on the inconspicuous black shoes as opposed to the furry knee boots he usually wore, drew his parka on over the padding. Though he hated the gear, he couldn’t seem to shed it right now. It was…familiar.
He had a feeling he’d need the familiar soon.
He’d just loaded the last of his pockets, his fingers checking a hidden seam in his parka to be sure, when Sarah ducked into the room. Chuck yanked his hand out as though he’d burned himself.
“Is there a way you can set it up so that nobody will notice you’re gone for a few hours?” she asked. “You report in daily, don’t you?”
“More like hourly. But yeah, I actually figured this one out ahead of time.” He hurried back into the office and began typing furiously at the keyboards. “Bryce gave me the idea when you came to visit, just in case I wanted to take a day off. I coded a program that will reply to my boss using a series of pre-generated responses and reports. It’s a data entry program, actually, that I modified using—actually, you probably don’t need to know that.” Chuck switched computers, his fingers never slowing.
“Have you tested it out?”
“Um, a couple of times. My, um, team on Call of Duty was having a raid and…” At Sarah’s incredulous stare, Chuck shuffled his feet defensively. “Look, I get two days off every month. I figured a couple of hours playing Call of Duty wasn’t going to hurt anything. And yes, the intel’s completely bogus when I use this program, but I always double-checked whatever video Mr. Carver sent me to look over, okay? I wasn’t slacking.”
“Okay. Sorry. I wasn’t judging.”
Chuck completed the code and hit enter. He was logging on a little early for the day, but there wasn’t anything he could do about that. Maybe Mr. Carver would just think he was making up for lost time from the day before. “Okay, it’s set. I’m ready to go.”
“Where’s your bag?”
“You said not to worry about clothes. I grabbed MREs for us to eat on the way, but this is all I have that’s important to me.” Chuck’s grin almost contained actual humor when he looked down at his outfit. “Pathetic, isn’t it?”
“Smart,” Sarah corrected. “You never know when you’re going to need to travel light. One last thing—I need you to grab the hard drive out of the computer.”
Chuck shrugged. “Okay.” He wriggled under the desk. A couple of minutes later, he emerged holding a flat piece of computer equipment. “Your hard drive, as ordered. What are you planning to do with it?”
“Pop it in the first mailbox we see and ship it to an undisclosed location. C’mon.” Sarah grabbed the cuff of his parka and led the way to the exit. She gestured at him to input the code; when he had, she went through the door first, her gun out and her body tense. Expecting trouble, Chuck realized. She jerked her head at him in a “move it!” fashion.
He didn’t move.
The sun was just beginning to roam over the world, lighting the edges of the sky and casting everything in early gloom. Chuck stared out the door and the narrow tunnel beyond. The tunnel that would lead out into a world where the sky stretched forever, and there was nothing around him, no walls to keep him safe. No computers. No heat tube, no bunk room, no office. He hadn’t set foot outdoors in months.
It didn’t seem to help to remind himself that waiting inside would only get him stuck permanently, handed over to foreign enemies, or killed. Chuck’s feet could literally not move from the tiles just inside the door.
Impatient, Sarah doubled back. “What is it?”
“I, uh—” Sweat popped all over Chuck’s skin as he stared through the tunnel. “I, I’m not sure, I’m not sure if I can, uh, if I can do this.”
“What? Of course you can.” Sarah tugged on his cuff once more.
Chuck didn’t move. “I haven’t left the bunker in nearly a year, Sarah. I can’t do this. I’ll just slow you up and you said so yourself, you need to find Bryce—”
“Chuck.” Sarah shifted so that she blocked his entire view of the tunnel, so that he would have to focus on her and nobody else. She was only a few inches shorter than him, which meant that she could block his view easily. He had no choice but to meet her gaze. “I want you to do me a favor.”
“I don’t know if I can.”
“You can.” Sarah’s grip tightened over his cuff—he could feel the pressure through the layers of cloth around his wrist. “I want you to trust me, Chuck. I’m going to protect you, and keep you safe.”
Chuck forced himself to swallow through a throat that ached. “Where are we going?”
“To the end of the tunnel, to my car. And then we’re driving to the nearest train station. It’s going to be okay.”
His heart, which really hadn’t received a break since Sarah had pointed a gun at his chest and declared his best friend a traitor, clocked new land speed records. He felt sweat begin to slide its greasy way down places like the back of his neck and inside his wrists. Black and white sparks began to erupt around the edges of his vision, making him blink. He wanted to run inside, to sprint for the bunk room, and to fling himself back into his sleeping bag. Wanted to pull the bag over his head and ignore everything, hoping it would all go away.
But he wasn’t a kid anymore. Pulling the sleeping bag over his head wouldn’t slay the monsters anymore. This time, the monsters were real—and they would kill him if he stayed in the bunker.
So he did it. He took the first step—and he put his life in Sarah Walker’s hands.