Well, this felt… strange.
It's only been four years since I enlisted in the Marines, four years since I swapped the familiar surroundings of my neighborhood for the sandy streets and fields of Iraq. I've only been gone four years, and yet that day when I waved goodbye to my parents to get on the bus that would take me to basic training was basically a lifetime ago. But it's not like I went through all levels of hell during my tour of duty in the Middle East though. I remember ninety percent of my time over there being spent in the barracks eating and sleeping, and on the times we went out on patrol, nothing really happened to us. We talked with the locals, handed out candy and chocolates to the kids, rode on the backs of a few goats. There was one time where I experienced being under fire, but even then it was just a few bursts of gunfire exchanged before everything calmed down again. I knew I fired off half a mag into the horizon, and I was fairly sure that I didn't hit anything or anyone at all.
Still, one tour of duty over there was more than enough for me, and I got out as soon as I could. Thank God for the GI Bill making it a little bit easier for me to start working on my college degree. But I also wanted to get to work earning my keep, so when I saw an ad asking for veterans I wasted no time getting there. I still was getting used to being back in the civilian world, but that wasn't all that felt strange to me on that day. I distinctly remember being fifth in line for the interview after I had given the receptionist my resume, but after the first four applicants the receptionist jumped the line straight to the guy next to me. I asked about this, of course, but all the receptionist would tell me was that the company was looking over my background and would get back to me as soon as they were finished. This went on for the rest of the day, and by three in the afternoon when I heard this shit repeated to me verbatim for what felt like the thousandth time, I was about ready to say "screw it" and walk out. No job was worth getting walked all over like this.
However, just as I was about to storm out, the receptionist finally called my name. "The management will see you now," she said, and then she led me to a different room from the one where she had led the other applicants. The room to which the receptionist led me looked more like a holding cell in a cop show than an office, with only one table and two chairs (all of them metal) inside. The receptionist made me sit on the chair in front of the desk and told me, "Wait here." She then walked out, leaving me alone inside with only my thoughts for company. ((What have you got yourself into this time, Alyosha?)) I asked myself.
Ten years ago, I wouldn't have been alone in the literal sense of the term. If I had been in the same situation ten years ago, I would have been able to talk to my Yeerk, Yassin Six-Eight-Nine of the Sulp Niar Pool. His presence in my head would have definitely helped me pass the time more quickly. But Yassin was nowhere near my head at the moment. He, along with maybe fifty or sixty thousand other Yeerks, was swimming around the Yeerk Pool underneath the city under the watchful eye of a combined Andalite and US Army detachment. I wondered what Yassin was talking about with his fellow Yeerks. Hopefully he was joking around and reminiscing about better times. Then I remembered that for some Yeerks, better times for them did not necessarily equate to good times for their hosts, human or otherwise. A small shiver traveled down my spine. I tried to quash the memories I had of the involuntary hosts in the Pool; I didn't need those kinds of thoughts running around in my head right now.
A quarter of an hour passed, maybe twenty minutes. A door leading from the office to another room beside opened, and in walked a woman. She was maybe half a head shorter than I was, and she had dark brown hair tied back into a tight bun. She was dressed in a white shirt and a black pencil skirt; her legs were covered in black stockings or pantyhose. The woman sat down on the seat in front of me and looked at me with her big brown eyes. I wasn't sure of how to feel; I felt like she was examining me the same way that I had just examined her, only hers was more thorough than mine. I also suddenly felt like there was somebody else in the room apart from the two of us, and that for me was probably the weirdest thing out of all these.
The woman clasped her fingers together in front of her and leaned down on the table, all the while maintaining eye contact with me. "Aleksandr Dragomirovich Damiric," she said. "Or Alyosha for short, right?" she asked with a small smile on the corner of her lips.
"Yes," I nodded, unsure if there was anything else that I should say.
"According to your file, you just got back here from Iraq," the woman continued. "Can you tell me anything about it? How was it like being there?"
"It was quiet, actually," I replied. "Never really thought anything about it until when I got back. The news is acting like the whole of the country is one big battlefield and shit like Ramadi and Fallujah is happening there on a day-to-day basis. It's not. My whole deployment, I was under fire for a grand total of one time. And it probably wasn't even a real attack; more like a hit-and-run raid just to see how we would react."
"How are you under pressure, Mr. Damiric?" the woman asked.
"Well, I don't think I've really had the time to find out. Like I said, I was under fire for only one time, and I don't think I hit anybody or anything—"
"How are you under pressure, Mr. Damiric?" the woman repeated.
"I don't know, I just told you," I said.
"How are you under pressure?" the woman said for a third time as she stood up and leaned even closer to me. "How are you under pressure? How are you under pressure!? Answer the question!"
"I don't know!" I shouted back. "I just don't know! What do you want me to say, miss!?"
Maybe that was what she wanted to hear. Or maybe she didn't think that she was ever going to get the answer that she wanted out of me. In any case, the woman finally backed down from her aggressive querying and sat back down. She folded her arms across her chest as she seemingly examined me once again, and then she put her right hand to her forehead and shook her head. "I'm sorry," she finally said. "I think we got off on the wrong foot. That was stupid of me. My name is Claudia Major. And I'm sure you're probably wondering why I'm interviewing you right now in this office instead of over there with the rest of your fellow applicants."
"It did cross my mind," I muttered. Now I was sure that I had no idea where this particular job interview was going to go. First this woman had all but interrogated me, and now she was playing the good cop. I braced myself, both mentally and physically, for what might come next.
"Good, good," the woman, Miss Major, muttered, more to herself than to me. "You're not hung up on the past. Your mind is right back here in the present. That's good. Anyway, where was I? Ah, yes. There was something in your file, Mr. Damiric, something that I found very, very interesting," Major said. "It appears that during middle school, you were a member of the Sharing."
"Yes, that's true," I nodded.
"But not just a member though," Major continued. "You were a full member. And I think you and I both know what being a full member of the Sharing means."
"All right, now hang on a minute," I said. "Yes, I admit that I used to be a Controller. And I'll also admit that I was a voluntary Controller. Now if you're suggesting that the reason why you've separated me from the rest of the guys applying for a job here is because of that, then let me just tell you that I know my rights. If you're here to tell me you're not going to even consider hiring me because of my past, then I'm here to tell you where you can shove your prejudice."
Major began to laugh, and a big part of me wondered whether she was laughing at me or what I had just said. Eventually she managed to compose herself and she said, "You've actually got it the other way around, Mr. Damiric. You think you're here because we don't want to hire a former Controller, but in fact that's the very reason why we're having this conversation in the first place."
"What exactly do you mean by that?" I asked.
Major chuckled softly and said, "How good are you at keeping secrets, Mr. Damiric?"
"Depends on the kind of secret we're talking about here," I replied. Inside, I was bracing myself for another barrage of repeated questions from Major. There was simply no telling where else this conversation could possibly go judging by our previous dialogue.
"We actually have something in common, Mr. Damiric," Major told me. "Rather, make that had something in common. I was a Controller too, just like you. Or just like you used to be."
"And what has that got to do with why I'm here?"
"The government, as it always has, has been looking into ways through which it could gain an advantage over its enemies, both foreign and domestic," Major replied. "Unsurprisingly, they've been looking into ways in which it can use Yeerks to its advantage. I can't really go into the specifics all that much, mostly because it's classified, but even then I've only been able to understand only a tenth of it myself. But the gist of it is that the government wants to use Yeerks in some sort of surveillance capacity. What that means, I can't say just yet. But it does mean that this is an opportunity for former Controllers to give back to this country, use their experience as sleeper agents in all but name and finally put it to good use, in the service of the United States."
"Hang on now, wait a minute," I said. Something about what she had just said didn't sit well with me. "Sleeper agents? Experience? Giving back to the country? Is that what you think of Controllers? Spies?"
"I mean, when you think about it, that's certainly the impression you've given us," Major replied nonchalantly. "Hiding in plain sight, recruiting unsuspecting humans to turn them into 'full members' of the Sharing, and all the other ways those slugs had tried to make their way into our heads."
"Look, lady, I came here to apply for a job, not to get talked down to," I said. "I don't know what your relationship with the Yeerk or Yeerks who infested you was, and I don't claim to know. But just because I said yes to the Sharing putting an alien in my head doesn't mean I liked it, or I actually wanted them to do it. I was in a no-win situation that way. Yes, you could say I could have run, but there's no running away once they've shown their true face to you. Whether you tell the Sharing yes or no, you're gonna end up with a slug around your brain anyway. I just took the easy way out. So go ahead and think as little of me as you want because of that. And tell the FBI or the CIA or whichever acronym you work for that I'm not interested," I told her as I stood up. "I should have known that this was gonna be a bust. I knew I should've walked out of here when I got the chance. And that's exactly what I'm gonna do now. Goodbye, Miss Major. Good luck finding and guilt-tripping some self-hating voluntary who just wants a shot at redemption. Sorry that I didn't turn out to be your man."
However, just as I turned around to leave, I heard Major say, "Sit down, Mr. Damiric." I can't explain just exactly what happened, but I froze when I heard her talk to me like that. My mind was already set on walking away before that moment, but when Major told me to stop, I felt compelled to follow her order, for what else could that have been but an order? "We're not done with you just yet," Major continued.
"That's right, Mr. Damiric, take a seat," Major said as I slowly made my way back. She stood up from her seat and then sat down on the edge of the table just in front of me. She folded her arms across her chest and said, "Looks like we got off on the wrong foot once again, Mr. Damiric. And I am really, really sorry about that. But we're not really interested in what you did in the past. We're interested in what you could do in the future. Specifically, what you can do for us. In any case, according to your file, you're taking advantage of the GI Bill to get your college degree, and we don't want to do anything to disrupt that. But just so you know, the mere fact that I am talking to you right now means that you're already on our shortlist. We're going to call on you again when the time comes. I'm telling you this just so you know what to expect when the time comes."
Major then stood up and extended her hand. "Thank you, Mr. Damiric, for taking the time to come here and listening," she said. I shook her hand, but quickly and only as a courtesy, and before I left the room, I muttered, "Crazy lady."
((Hey, man. Have you ever stopped for a moment to think about how in the world you've got yourself in a particular situation?))
((Quite a few times, actually, Alyosha,)) Yassin Six-Eight-Nine replied to my question as I looked at my watch. ((Right now I am asking myself what I have done to put myself in a position like this.))
((What are you talking about? You mean like, what's an alien slug like you doing inside the head of a guy standing in the corner of some street in an Eastern European country that nobody knows or cares about? Yeah, it's one of the greatest mysteries of the universe, man.))
So there I was, standing on the corner of Plaza Milicic, the central square of Koruma, watching the place for signs of the Communards, the anarcho-capitalist rebels who had taken control of the north of Glendovia. Our sources had told us that today was the day that the Communards would initiate a new offensive against the internationally recognized government in the south, and Koruma, the pristine little jewel in the middle of Glendovia raking in all those tourist dollars, was the first city in the Communards' way. Any other day and I wouldn't be risking my life in what could become a battlefield, but given that there was a CIA agent who was last seen here in Koruma that needed extraction, I didn't have much of a choice. My slimy friend Yassin had been busy "interrogating" persons of interest in and around Koruma, trying to narrow down the location of "Barbara", the aforementioned agent. The Communards have a track record of torturing people whom they suspected of spying on them, suspected being the operative word here. If their idea of dealing with a couple of tourists whom they thought were spying on them simply because they were in the wrong place at the wrong time, one must wonder what the Communards could possibly do to an actual CIA spy.
((May I speak truthfully about something, Alyosha?)) Yassin asked.
((Well, will you look at that? A Yeerk asking for permission to speak from his host. Maybe there is such a thing as miracles after all,)) I muttered. ((Yeah, what do you want to say, man?))
((I mean, you didn't have to do this mission yourself,)) Yassin said. ((Anyone from the Project could have done this easily enough.))
((I know, I know,)) I acknowledged. ((But I'm the only one in the Project who actually knows the area. And the language.))
((Yes, about that. If I remember correctly, nobody said anything about going to Glendovia when the Project was first approached for this mission. All that was mentioned in the brief was that Barbara had gone missing while gathering intel on the Communards.))
((You volunteered immediately as soon as Barbara's name was mentioned,)) Yassin said. ((Practically jumped at the chance as soon as someone asked. Now, if I didn't know any better, I would say that you were attracted to Barbara. Sadly, I actually know you very well, sometimes better than you know yourself, and I know that you're very attracted to Barbara.))
((Ah, come on now, Yassin. Now you're just talking out of your ass,)) I said as I took out a stick of chewing gum and put it in my mouth. I started smoking cigarettes during my time with the Marines, but when Yassin came back to my life and my head he was not amused that I was, in his words, "abusing my body" so he made me go cold turkey, and I've been going through whole packs of gum since.
((How can I talk out of my ass if I don't have any? At least in my true form?)) Yassin asked back. ((Don't deny it, Alyosha. Your mouth says you're not attracted to her, but your mind and your body tell me otherwise.))
The annoying thing about having an alien mind-reading slug wrapped around your brain was that you've got no choice but to listen to him drone on and on about whatever crossed his mind during lulls like this. The really annoying thing about it though is that Yassin got it right. I was attracted to Barbara. Ever since I first laid eyes on her during that training session at The Farm, I just couldn't stop thinking about Barbara. I knew that it was against the rules to fraternize with a fellow field agent trainee, but I couldn't help myself. The heart wants what the heart wants. And Barbara personally wasn't against it as well; it was just that we were both professional enough to know that any sort of relationship between the two of us could potentially compromise either one of us down the line. That didn't stop me though, didn't stop me from dreaming or imagining that maybe, after all this was over and we were both out of the Company and the Project respectively, we could both sit down for a coffee or a drink and just catch up, maybe get to know each other better.
That said, once I finished the training course at The Farm, I didn't see Barbara again. I never set eyes on her until a few months ago when I took the dossier of the CIA agent gone missing in Glendovia and saw her picture in the file. I volunteered for the mission without really thinking about it, which really shouldn't be the way one should volunteer for things. If you're going to volunteer for something, you might as well get to know everything there is to know about it. Knowing is half the battle and all that. Still, if there's one positive I've taken from this whole thing, it's that it's allowed me to get closer to my own heritage and truly understand the plight of my home country. Which to me makes the whole situation with the Communards and the Loyalists all the more saddening.
It was eight in the morning. For all intents and purposes, the day had barely even started. There were a few people milling around in the plaza, most of them drunkards who were only just waking up from their latest hangover. There were few tourists up at this early hour as expected, but strangely enough there weren't many shops opening their doors as well. The air itself seemed weighed down with a sense of… foreboding is the best word I could use to describe it, I guess. It was like everyone knew that something was about to happen here, something bad. Even the drunks and the vagrants were clearing out of the plaza as fast as their legs would allow them to do. Everyone knew something was up; everyone except us, apparently.
"EAGLE EYE, this is GROUNDHOG," I called out. "See anything yet?"
"Negative, GROUNDHOG," EAGLE EYE, the agent in charge of our mission's eyes in the sky, replied. "Predator's not picking up anything on visible or infrared just yet."
"How about the warehouse? Have we confirmed Barbara is inside?"
"Negative on that as well, GROUNDHOG. It's hard to get any shots inside the warehouse. The people inside aren't sticking close to the windows, at least not long enough for facial recognition to get a good scan, let alone a match."
"Understand, EAGLE EYE. Just keep all eyes peeled. Maybe we'll hit a lucky break," I said.
((You honestly don't believe that the locals know something that we don't, do you?)) Yassin asked me.
((I don't just believe it, man; I know they know something,)) I replied. ((I've seen it before, in Iraq. That day AQ went after the base, the locals weren't anywhere near the base. They knew something was up, and they didn't go out so they wouldn't get caught in the crossfire. I'm getting those same vibes here, man. The people know hell is about to break loose here, and they want no part of it.))
I walked over to a police car parked in a side street leading to the plaza. There were two people in the car, one man and one woman. The man was James, the agent who pretended to be the bartender while Yassin "interrogated" my cop friend Pavle. The woman, let's call her Bella, was also a CIA agent assigned to the same station as both Barbara and James. They were dressed in the uniforms of the Glendovian policija, a disguise intended to let them blend into the surroundings, but given the way the day was turning out, the two of them were sticking out like sore thumbs. Not that I could say that I was doing any better; I was also dressed as a policija officer. What was supposed to be a simple extraction op was turning into a more high-stakes thing.
"They find Barbara yet?" James asked me from the passenger seat of the police car.
"Negative," I shook my head. "Drone's finding it hard to get a good enough scan for face recognition."
"What about the Communards?" Bella asked.
"So far, EAGLE EYE hasn't picked up anything," I shrugged. "Doesn't mean anything though. Intel says they're gonna make their move here in Koruma today, and our sources have been reliable since we put boots on here."
"So where does that leave us?" Bella continued. "We can't exactly stay here the whole day waiting to confirm if Barbara's here or not."
"Come on," I said. "If you don't like sitting here waiting, imagine what I'm going through. I'm a sitting duck out here. If shit hits the fan, I might not even make it back to you guys."
"GROUNDHOGS, EAGLE EYE is picking up movement!"
"Ah, shit," Bella muttered. "I knew it. I knew it! We're gonna get stuck here, and when the Communards find us, they're going to pull our tongues out through our necks!"
"EAGLE EYE, can you confirm if that's the Communards moving in?" James asked over the radio.
"Can't say for sure, GROUNDHOG. I'm just seeing one car, looks to be a yellow Zhiguli, coming into the plaza from the south. I mean, if that's all that the Communards are sending to Koruma, it's not much of an attacking force."
"Where is the car now, EAGLE EYE?" I asked.
"It's going north down Selimov Street," EAGLE EYE reported.
"Wait, Selimov Street? That's this particular street right here, isn't it?" Bella asked me.
"Bella, will you just calm down for a moment?" James told her. "We don't know anything about this one car yet."
"Easy for you to say," Bella snorted back. "You're not the one who's in the direct line of fire when they do a drive-by on us."
"Not unless they start shooting us in the back, in which case I've got just as much a chance as you of getting hit!" James retorted.
"I've got eyes on the vehicle," I said, loudly enough for both James and Bella to hear. "Looks like two occupants inside, both male. They look like they're early twenties."
"Ah, crap," Bella muttered. "I told you!" While the government of the Northern Glendovian Commune was composed of parties and people who fell on the farther end of the right wing, their armed forces (if it could even be called that) were nothing more than collections of gangs and mobs who affiliated themselves with the rebels in the north because it allowed them to operate without the constraints of law and let them kill indiscriminately. It wasn't unheard of for gangsters loyal to northern-affiliated gangs to conduct drive-bys and hit-and-runs and all sorts of small-scale attacks in the south just to put the fear of the north in Loyalist hearts, make them look over their shoulder for the smallest Communard threat.
I drew my pistol from its holster, removed the safety, and held it just under my waist should the worst come to pass. Inside the car, Bella and James drew their guns as well and leaned back as far as the seats would allow them to make them smaller targets for any potential gunmen in the approaching car. The yellow Zhiguli went down the street as fast as its crappy little Soviet-era engine could take it, and then to our combined surprise and relief (but mostly relief), the yellow rust bucket drove past us without so much as slowing down. The Zhiguli drove into the plaza and then turned into a side street.
"Wonder what those guys are up to," James said as he raised his seat back up. "How's that factor into your gut feeling, Alyosha?" he asked me.
((Yes, Alyosha,)) Yassin repeated. ((How does the presence of those two men in their rusty little car factor into your feeling that everyone knows that something bad is about to happen here?))
"I'm not sure," I admitted. "Maybe they're trying to pick up something before the Communards come here and tear this place up."
"Or someone," James added. "Maybe they're after someone, not something."
"Wait, are you saying that those two guys could be after…?" Bella started to ask, only to be cut off by EAGLE EYE calling out to us. "GROUNDHOG, drone just picked up a match to Barbara!"
"What!? Where? Where is she?" I asked immediately.
"Third floor of the warehouse," EAGLE EYE replied. "Someone took a peek out the window just for a quick second or two, but it's enough for the facial recognition. Ninety percent match according to it. But that's the good news, GROUNDHOG."
"And the bad news?" I asked, even though I had a feeling that I already knew the answer.
"That car that just passed you by? It's stopped at the warehouse. They parked in an alley behind the warehouse. Two males are coming out of the car. They're headed for the back entrance… They're in the warehouse."
"Fuck," I muttered. "EAGLE EYE, Groundhog One is going in," I said, and I bolted for the warehouse as fast as I could
"Ah, shit," I heard James mutter, and then I heard the sound of the police car being started.
((Would you mind telling me what is going on?)) Yassin asked me.
((I hope I'm wrong, man. I really hope I'm wrong,)) I replied. ((But if I'm right, and I really, really hope I'm not, then those two guys in the Zhiguli are going into the warehouse to grab Barbara for God knows what.))
((Make an example out of her, you mean,)) Yassin offered.
((You're goddamn right the Communards will,)) I nodded. ((You've seen the file on the things they've done to policija and Loyalist forces they've captured. And that's their fellow countrymen they're mutilating. Remember that traveler couple that stumbled into them a few months back? They're still sending body parts to Govorska to this day.)) Govorska was the capital of Glendovia, the city where the internationally recognized government of Glendovia ruled the parts of the country it controlled.
((The human capacity for brutality, especially on your fellows, never ceases to sicken me,)) Yassin muttered.
"GROUNDHOG, I've got even more bad news for you," EAGLE EYE said via radio.
I bit back an expletive and replied, "What is it this time, EAGLE EYE?"
"The Predator's picking up more movement to the north of the town. Looks like people are coming out of the woodwork and raising up flags and weapons. The flags look like those of the Golden Hands. I think this is the Communard attack we've been warned about."
"Fuck," I spat out. "How far away are they from the warehouse?"
"Not that far. They're gonna be on top of you within fifteen, twenty minutes."
((Well, that's no good for you at all,)) Yassin said.
"Copy," I told EAGLE EYE. "Keep me posted on their progress, and tell me if someone tries to jump me. I'm going in." I held my pistol against my chest, and then I pushed open the back door of the warehouse and went inside.
A/N: Apologies if this second chapter took a good long while to come after the first one. I've been busy with real life and some of my other projects, but I hope to get back in the writing groove sometime soon. As always, I can't promise regular updates, but this is the assurance that I haven't forgotten about this story or given up on it. Sometimes the story just comes along slowly or other stories make their way through to my consciousness. But enough of my ranting. As always, feel free to leave a review or a comment, or just tell me what you think. I appreciate the feedback. Thank you. – GR