Extracting intelligence assets was never a thing that could be described as fun – mostly because, by the time extraction became a necessity, the surrounding situation had devolved to such an extent that managing it was as much a matter of luck as planning. And, as a general rule, Gabriel Reyes despised relying on luck.
The present extraction operation was even less enjoyable than usual, primarily because they weren’t removing their asset alone. No, they were pulling their agent and her husband and her two children, one of whom was a surly teenager. Which was why Shimada was handling the actual on-the-ground removal process: the whole cyborg ninja thing was, in the estimation of the Agent-In-Command, just awesome enough to help pre-empt any difficulties. Gabe had to admit that the AIC appeared to have a point and things had gone smoothly for Shimada, his two fire teams worth of backup, and the asset-and-family. They were making brisk progress through the smuggler tunnels used to bring contraband into the city. It made being relegated to observer status at the extraction point just slightly more tolerable.
“Approaching the inner perimeter barriers.” Shimada’s voice in his ear, using subvocal communication protocol to avoid pickup by any parabolic listening devices.
“I gotcha,” the AIC drawled from a few feet away. “Deploying countermeasures in 3…2…1…” The holoscreens displaying the output of the perimeter security monitors split, feeding the false information that opened the way for the extraction team. “You got ten minutes.”
A low chuckle. “I will only need…” What he needed slid away in a sleet storm of audio distortion, loud enough that Gabe hissed and pulled the communicator out of his ear.
Jesse, in the command pod, did not react at all. Tiny explosions of darkness went off in front of his eyes, the sonic distortion increased in pitch and volume, and it felt as though someone had picked up the extraction vehicle and tilted it sharply on its side. Or, at least, it looked that way from his perspective on the floor. The last thing he saw, before the little explosions of darkness turned into an unrelieved field of the same, was Jesse turning in the command chair and the look on his face.
“So what you’re saying,” Gabriel said, twenty hours later, from a bed in Watchpoint Geneva’s medical center, “is that I, who haven’t had a goddamned sniffle in twenty years, had a seizure.”
“I could show you the biotelemetry if you insist but, yes, that’s exactly what I’m saying.” Dr. Monika Lucchesi, the head of Neurology, said. “To be specific a generalized tonic seizure with a notable sensory component. Has this ever happened before?”
Gabriel gave her the look he usually reserved for people who ought to know better asking unutterably stupid questions. “No.”
“Any family history of epilepsy?”
“Any recent blows to the head?”
“Other than the one I just enjoyed when I hit the floor? No.”
The good doctor checked off items on her workpad. “There are a number of possible neurological causes but in order to determine specifics I recommend a full diagnostic health survey.” She smiled beatifically. “Also, there’s someone here to see you. I’ll let you two talk while I get things in motion.”
“I didn’t agree to that!” He snapped at her retreating back as she opened the door and slipped smoothly to one side to allow his visitor entry.
“All things bein’ equal, boss, I’m not sure that she cares.” Jesse smiled crookedly from the door. “Can’t say I blame her.”
“Lord save me from the both of you, then.” Gabriel rolled his eyes heavenward. “Report.”
“Exfiltration and extraction of all assets and asset-adjacent individuals was completed within the specified optimal timeframe. Liftoff occurred at 03:35 hours local time and transit was completed within six hours. The asset and asset-adjacent individuals have since been handed off to Out-processing for assignment to their new identities.” The corner of Jesse’s mouth twitched and he handed over the workpad containing all the relevant reports. “Commander Gabriel Reyes was remanded to the care of Medical upon touchdown and continues his tradition of being a total pain in the ass to all healthcare providers.”
“Wiseass.” Gabriel growled, but on cursory examination all the paperwork seemed to be in order, and just looking at it was making him more tired than he should be. “How’s Genji?”
“Doin’ okay. He didn’t have to stab anybody and I think he actually got along with the teenager, so that was a plus.” Jesse settled into the chair at his bedside. “You?”
“For the record, this was not actually part of the plan.” Gabriel hid the tablet under the sheets. “If I were going to throw something unexpected at you for your first AIC of asset exfiltration, stupid neurological tricks wouldn’t even be on the list of possible options.”
“And that ain’t an answer.” Jesse planted his chin on a fist and eyed him narrowly.
“Headachy. Tired.” Both were true, and he let his head fall back into the pillows. “Stuck here for the foreseeable future unless I pull rank and discharge myself.”
“Maybe you shouldn’t do that.” Jesse rose. “You look like crap, I don’t mind sayin’ that you scared the crap outta me, and you probably oughta get some rest. More than you’ve been gettin’, at least.”
“I’ll take that under advisement.” But Jesse admitting to fear out loud gave him pause, and so he stayed in Medical for the duration of the health survey. And for a few days more when Lucchesi insisted on looping in Ziegler, and Ziegler insisted on running her own battery of diagnostics.
“A brain tumor? Are you fucking kidding me?”
As it turned out, she was not.
The Department of Defense did, eventually, send Dr. Lucchesi his personal medical documentation from the archives of the Soldier Enhancement Program, all but three paragraphs of it redacted. He could have told her the odds of getting any useful information out of them were slim to none but he hadn’t wanted to rob her of hope.
He quietly removed himself from field work. Pragmatically, the odds of being able to continue while receiving treatment were nonexistent. The location made it conventionally inoperable, and the extent of the secondary metastases through his nervous system left chemo as the applicable therapy. The same enhanced healing processes that had masked the symptoms long enough for it to turn into a Stage IV malignancy might not allow even that, given the speed with which is body metabolized every other drug in the world. Not for the first time, he wondered if the SEP had included a use by date on everyone that had endured it, given the extent to which its biological improvements were now helping to kill him.
Preventing Jesse from finding out was a weapons-grade pain in the ass. He had noticed the change in the active field roster – impossible not to – but initially held discretion as the better part of valor. Three months on, that was no longer true. Gabriel could and did fend off his delicate little nibbles around the edges but keeping him out of the Medical intranet had required Athena’s personal intervention to thwart him and his ICE-cutting methods. It made developing plans for the inevitable power devolution within the ranks of Blackwatch a thousand times harder. Under ideal circumstances, he would have spent another year or two easing Jesse into the idea that command responsibility was something he could handle and then another five solidifying that realization into the bedrock of his psyche and then he would have handed off the role, secure in the knowledge that his hand-chosen, hand-trained successor was ready.
Time was no longer a luxury he could afford. It wasn’t only his body failing at the worst conceivable moment. It was the entire world and the organization he’d devoted his life to building coming apart at the seams, more or less simultaneously. At that moment, sitting in his office, waiting for the newest report from medical to arrive, a handful of news streams open in one screen, the latest bullshit from New York on another, and his own structured plan for Blackwatch to outlive him on yet a third, he was forced to wonder if survival was even an option.
His system’s incoming message tone sounded. He was not particularly surprised by its content: no noticeable change in the size of the primary or secondary cancerous lesions. His body was eating the goddamned chemo before it could do its job. Nanobiotic medicine had a second-line treatment but it was highly experimental, not yet approved for human clinical trials, and possibly contraindicated thanks to his altered biology.
Ziegler thought it was worth a shot, if an experimental protocol could be approved. If he approved and was willing to take the risk.
A little more time was all he needed.