Chapter 10

 

On their final day, they were smuggled back the way they had come, all the way to the same air base in Tel Aviv.  From there they returned on another helicopter to the Eisenhower.

Aboard the aircraft carrier, they were then escorted to a ready room by two sailors.

“You’re just in time,” one of the sailors said.  “We make a weekly flight out to Argo to deliver supplies.  We’ll be sending you that way.”

After a couple of hours, Lucas, Sam, Rashid, Heinrich, Logan, Aguirre, and the rest of their expedition were taken back to the hangar.  A deckhand directed them to two MV-22 Ospreys.  Sam and Lucas remained with Rashid and Heinrich, as did Logan, leaving his team to the other aircraft.  Within minutes, their transports lifted off the flight deck, their rotors tilting then leveling out.  At their present distance, the pilots announced, they would arrive at Argo within ninety minutes.

As the two transports soared over the water, Lucas looked out the windscreens.  He had never given it any thought until now, and this too surprised him, but he had never seen the ocean.  In fact, the first time he had ever seen an ocean was en route to Sweden, yet he had been at such a high altitude that it seemed as distant as any atlas.  The second time was on their way to Tel Aviv, and yet even then the ocean’s magnitude hadn’t fazed him as it did now.  He had spent his entire life around Lake Michigan, but it was only as he looked out at nothing but a rippling seascape that it sank in.  As he had been on a skip-jet, he was in awe; and as he was in Iraq and Kurdistan, he felt like a stranger in a strange land.

A crackling sensation resonated through his skin.  It then occurred to him, as foreign as this all seemed, that one critical juncture remained.

“What happens when we get to Argo?” he asked the others through his headset.

Logan leaned in.  “With all our errands out of the way, now we can turn our attention to fighting the Q.”

Lucas reminded himself that this was exactly what NATO wanted him for.  Having spent the past three days sneaking through the Middle East, he had almost forgotten who had sent him there in the first place.

Picking up on his discomfort, Sam joined in.  “I think the past few days have been pretty taxing on all of us.  Once we get to Argo, we should have plenty of time to adjust.”

“And then?” Lucas said.

“And then we’ll focus on training you,” Sam said reluctantly.

Sinking back, Lucas considered the prospect of preparing for combat with the Q, the thought weighing deeply upon him.

“Don’t worry,” Rashid said, catching everyone off guard.  Despite their surprise, he kept his eyes on Lucas.  “They intend for you to kill, not to be killed.”

Though brief, his words gave Lucas some strength, enough to slow his descent.

From the other side of the cabin, Heinrich observed their interaction carefully.  Sam, too, noticed Heinrich.  Though the disquiet which filled him the night before had not abated, Sam noticed that it seemed to have been tempered, if only a little, by Heinrich’s pragmatism—this was him acknowledging that he could at least be grateful their clients were now getting along.

The pilot called back that they were now approaching Argo.  Everyone then turned to the windows as two pallid-gray F-22 Raptors sidled up to the transports.

“At least they fly a CAP,” Heinrich said, scanning the planes as they conveyed directions to the incoming transports.

“Does a place like this need combat air patrol, though?” Sam said.  “I thought Argo was an R-and-D facility.”

“It certainly used to be,” Heinrich said.  “But hosting three psychics may have earned them an upgrade.”

The Raptors banked away, accelerating ahead.  Intimidating and imposing, OSS-7 Argo stood out as a swathe of malachite, lavender, and soft grays against a never-ending sea.  The island resembled a small city, with a handful of high-rising structures prickling from its inner precincts, growing taller near the center.  From a central base seven piers stretched in all directions, splintering into runways and docks. 

Logan leaned closer to the window.  “I’ve heard a good deal about Argo.  It’s the largest UN facility jointly operated by both NATO and civilian contingencies.  Nearly forty square kilometers in total, reaching half a klick beneath and above sea-level…”  He glanced back at the others.  “Moving is always a pain, but I must say, Argo is one hell of a change of venue.”

Both Ospreys landed on the island’s easternmost pier.  A number of deckhands in yellow jumpsuits and black smocks offloaded the aircraft.  From the transports’ storage compartments they took several containers, including those containing the samples from Iraq, rushing them away.

Logan found Aguirre, who was stepping out of the other Osprey.  “Could you follow the samples, Nato?” he asked, keeping his eyes on the men in yellow carrying away their handiwork.  “Follow them to our new lab and join up with the rest of our team, will you?”

“Got it,” Aguirre said, sprinting after their samples.

Logan rejoined Sam, Lucas, Heinrich, and Rashid.  They all turned in awe, overwhelmed by Argo’s size alone.  The flight deck they were on was void of any other structures, and there was a considerable distance between the open pier and the island’s inner districts.

A man in a dark working uniform approached with two soldiers.  He stood straight, his hands behind his back.

“Good afternoon,” he boomed over the rotors.  “I’m Lieutenant Webber, Vice Master-at-arms of Argo’s military police and marine contingent.  I’d like to welcome you all.”  Receiving no replies, he added, “I’ve been instructed to escort you to the Major-General.”

Webber gestured to a personnel vehicle at the edge of the flight deck, at the end of a causeway leading further into the island.  Passengers were already boarding.

“I take it the Major-General is the commanding officer here,” Sam said, straining to speak over the transports as they took off.

“Yes, sir,” Webber replied crisply.  “Major-General Toth is Argo’s CO, head of all NATO and civilian affairs on the island.  You’ll want to meet her before settling in—she’s requested you all.”

***

Nestled in the crow’s nest of Argo’s highest tower, within the central terminal, the command information center was filled with busy officers.  And at the center of the floor, facing a forward array of screens, Argo’s commanding officer and her second in command stood, smartly dressed in dark service uniforms.

Major-General Toth tried not to grit her teeth as she switched between the radar and direct visuals of the exercise west of the island.  Two F/A-18F Super Hornets and three F-22 Raptors began their maneuver: they flew in basic formation at high velocity, then performed a drastic break after a spontaneous prompt.  The goal of the exercise was to acquaint new pilots with both escorting an ally and breaking at the drop of a hat.  In air-to-air combat with the Q, historically one of the primary contributors to pilot deaths, next to surprise attacks, was negligence.  The Q could rapidly deploy incendiaries at random, which occasionally caught pilots off guard.  To Toth, this was unacceptable.

As in the last attempt, a few aircraft failed to break in time, colliding with the hypothetical incoming threat—this time a single Raptor and two Hornets.  The overhead speakers conveyed in tinny voices the conversation between the pilots, the wing commander chewing out subordinates, then declaring that they would run the exercise again.

“They’re sloppy,” Toth said, lost in the radar.  “Late, even when anticipating…”

Brigadier Olembe tried not to smile as he watched her survey the next run.  “They’re doing well enough,” he observed in a Cameroonian-French accent.  “Perhaps you might allow them a little time on the ground.”

“You and I both know ‘well enough’ isn’t sufficient during an operation,” Toth thought aloud, twirling a pencil between her fingers.  She tucked her dark hair behind her ears, revealing wrinkles around her eyes and brow.  “I understand we’re not in a warzone, but if they can’t perform the most basic of aerial maneuvers, then they’re essentially useless.”

“I meant they were doing well enough for a group of pilots who haven’t seen combat in months,” Olembe said, his smile turning wry.  They shared a look, Toth seething, Olembe serene.  “Give them a little more time.  I’m sure they’ll be in shape soon.”

“Well enough,” Toth conceded, though not easily.  She glanced back at one of her comm officers, ordering him to recall the wing.  Turning back to Olembe, she asked with a degree of defeat, “Happy?”

“We have visitors,” was all Olembe said, his gaze traveling over Toth’s shoulder.  Toth turned in time to see Lieutenant Webber lead their new arrivals onto the floor.

“Major-General,” Webber stated.  “I present Doctors Logan and Samuel Walker, Doctor Rankin, Corporal Qasim, and Specialist Weir.”

“Thank you, Lieutenant,” Toth said, though her mind seemed elsewhere.  “My name is Helena Toth—though I take it you know that already.”  She turned to Olembe, who nodded.  “This is my XO, Brigadier Jean-Luc Olembe.  You’ll be under our command for the duration of your stay.”

Brushing aside her halfhearted welcome, Logan said, “Thank you, of course, Major-General.  But, with all due respect, I’d very much like to get to work.”

Apparently appreciating the temerity of her new head science adviser, Toth said, “Your lab is already prepared, Doctor, and your team arrived from Stockholm yesterday.  They should be ready for you.”

Toth then turned her attention to Sam.  “And to think,” she said, speaking with a touch more ceremony, “we’re joined by the Chief Director of the Esper Program himself.”

“Actually,” Sam said, “I’ve recently been released from the directorate.”

“On the contrary, Doctor,” Toth said.  “I was informed only this morning that the directorate was not dissolved but downsized and relocated here.”  She turned her attention to a series of printouts, reporting the proceedings of the exercise she had witnessed.  “We’ll be coordinating with each other, Doctor Walker.  I’d like to keep a close eye on what the Esper Program will be doing on my island.”

“Of course,” Sam said.

Not bothering to meet their gaze, Toth’s attention turned to Rashid and Lucas.

“Corporal Qasim,” she said, “I understand you came from Israel, where you and Doctor Rankin were mostly left to your own devices.  On this island, Corporal, you will follow commands, doing precisely as ordered.  You should adjust accordingly.”

With virtually no effect, Rashid said, “Yes, ma’am.”

Satisfied, Toth then scrutinized Lucas.  “We’ll begin training Specialist Weir immediately,” she said.  “If the Security Council is going to station psychics here, then they will be combat-ready at all times.”

The knot in his stomach returning, Lucas tried to rise to the occasion.  “Major-General,” he said, earning only a cursory look from Toth.  “I…  I’ll do my best to prepare.”

She studied him again, then replied languidly, “I’m sure you will.  Be sure your ‘best’ is enough to meet our needs.”

Attempting to cut the tension, Sam reentered the exchange.  “Speaking of our psychics, have Sergeant Alder and Doctor Ward arrived yet?  I should meet with them as soon as possible.”

With a sigh, seemingly perturbed with her own answer as much as Sam’s question, Toth said, “Sergeant Alder and her therapist have been delayed.”

“That’s unexpected,” Sam said.  “Do we know what’s keeping them?”

“All we know at the moment,” Toth explained, arms folded, “is that they’re still in London.  But you and I will be taking that up with the boys from the Economic and Social Council.  We have a teleconference with Spencer Kearney this evening.  Doctor Rankin, you’ll be joining us.”

Toth returned to the printouts.  She soon paused, then looked back up at them, as if surprised they were still there.  “That’s all,” she said before returning to the report.  “I’ll be in touch, Doctor Walker and Doctor Rankin, about our meeting.”

“I’ll escort them to their quarters, then,” Webber declared.

“You’ll return to your normal duties, Lieutenant,” Toth said.  “I’d prefer that our new arrivals familiarize themselves with the island.”

With slight hesitation, Webber replied with a “yes, ma’am,” then ushered them out of the command center.

Waiting until they were gone, Toth looked up at Olembe, who was stifling a chuckle.  She asked, “Something wrong, Jean-Luc?”

“Are you always so peachy with new people?” Olembe asked.

Toth smirked.  “If they can’t handle me, they don’t belong in NATO, let alone on Argo.”

“I’m sure they’d rather face a Q than have another visit with you.”

With a laugh of her own, Toth abandoned the report.  “Let’s get the next wing up in the air, get their exercises done for the day.”

***

In a hall edging the main tower, Lieutenant Webber stopped at an interactive map on the wall, which displayed a top-down wireframe of Argo.  With a few strokes, he panned in to their location.

“We’re currently at the eastern edge of the island’s central terminal,” he explained.  “You want the commons, on the west side.  That’s where you’ll find personnel housing, civvies and military.  All other amenities are on that side of the island.”

His eyebrows shooting up, Webber then reached into his vest.  “I almost forgot.”  He pulled out a number of plastic cards, handing one to each of them.  “These are your IDs.  They give you access to all relevant parts of the island, anywhere you’re meant to be.  Your new addresses should be printed there too.”

Taking his card, Lucas found his picture on the corner—the mug shot the Illinois embassy had taken of him.  It was strange to think that had been nearly a week ago.  He then found his rank and identification number, along with what he assumed was his address: OSS-7 Argo, Pier 7, District 3, followed by a unit number.

“If any of you get lost,” Webber added before glancing cautiously back in the direction of the command center.  “Well, feel free to ask around—if you need to.  Otherwise, welcome aboard.”

With that, he bade them goodbye.

“Well, then,” Logan said with a clap.  “It’s been fun, but Daddy’s off to work now.  I’ll see you kids later.”  He then headed northward, disappearing around a corner.

Sighing, Heinrich followed.  “We might as well find our bunks now.”  He stopped to look out the windows lining the wall—Argo’s cityscape, skirted by the sea.  “This place is no Tel Aviv, but it certainly has its charms.”

Heinrich, Sam, Lucas, and Rashid walked together to the western edge of the central terminal.  They strolled through enclosed bridges between towers, gradually descending a story at a time.  Along the way, they passed a number of men and women wearing flags on their shoulder to indicate their member state in the UN.  Some were in NATO utility uniforms or coveralls, others in plainer dress which indicated they worked in the island’s research facilities, and others still wore civilian clothes.

Navigating between the disparate bursts of personnel, they found Argo to be a little overwhelming.  Lucas was reminded of Chicago at its busiest hours.

Despite the island’s size, they crossed over to the commons on Pier 7 in only a few minutes.  Each unit appeared streamlined, and the passageways looked much the same.  A level beneath the island’s surface, Sam and Lucas parted ways with Rashid and Heinrich, who went to locate their own housing arrangements.

Following the address printed on Lucas’ ID, they at last found his quarters.  They stood before a plainspoken door, which they unlocked with his card.  The dark room housed a bed and a desk.  A couple of battered cardboard boxes lay neatly on the floor.

Lucas proceeded to the boxes.  Opening one, he found books, some clothes, and an extra pair of shoes.

“These are from my place in Chicago,” he said, opening the second box.

“The embassy must’ve sent for your things after we left,” Sam said from the doorway, leaning against the jamb.  “I think I saw the bathrooms and showers down the hall.”

“Does that mean the whole floor shares them?” Lucas said, sitting on the floor.

“Are you all right with that?”

Shrugging, Lucas said, “I’ve been in less personal circumstances before.”

From over his shoulder, Sera added, “You’re rather used to arrangements like this, aren’t you?  Still, doesn’t it make you the least bit nervous—being somewhere like this?”

“It’s a little daunting,” he said to her.  He then realized Sam was listening, and quickly added, “It’s daunting to be in a place like this.  But it’s fine, really.”  He recalled a number of experiences from before he blew into Chicago.  “Honestly, I never planned on joining the military, let alone this…  But I’m used to moving around.”

“You mean when you were in Indiana?” Sam said.  “If you don’t mind, what was that part of your life like?”

“Just jumping from one town to the next,” Lucas said.  Ever since entering Chicago and befriending Harold, Indiana had seemed eons ago.  “I stayed with migrant workers for the most part, and some refugees from Quebec and Mexico.  We worked corn fields and took care of livestock…  It was enough to stay off the streets.  But I was always on the move.”  He smiled, thoughts of Indiana evaporating as he raised his head.  “Three years in Chicago was the longest I’ve ever spent anywhere…  At least, since Detroit.”

Sam couldn’t help but feel pleased.  In so short a time, he had managed to nurture this much trust.  He smiled, grateful.

“I’m sure Argo will be a good home,” he said.

Lucas smiled.  “I think you’re right.”

***

In the northernmost pier Logan encountered Aguirre, who had come to fetch him.  Together they returned to their new lab space.

“I take it everyone’s here already,” Logan said.

“They moved everyone during our... ‘stay’ in Israel,” Aguirre said.  “They’ve also received the cadaver from Chicago.”

With a disapproving hum, Logan said, “Seems the UN wasted no time tossing their favorite problem children onto a remote island in the middle of nowhere.  But I guess that doesn’t matter, not since we’ve acquired these other samples.  It would seem our set is complete.”

“Until the Q throw something new at us,” Aguirre said, holding back a grimace.

“Yes, well, we’re avid collectors, if nothing else.”

Their new laboratory and work space occupied nearly a kilometer-square of northern pier, the hub for all research and development on the island.  They entered what looked to be a warehouse, finding the interior cavernous and very much occupied.  Shrouded by suspended plastic curtains, a visceral mass occupied the majority of the floor, about seven by seven meters.  And though the contents behind the plastic partition—heaps of what could have easily passed as flesh—were clearly organic, they did not stink from putrefaction.  The warehouse smelled sterile, like a surgical theater.

Ascending a set of rattling metal stairs, Logan and Aguirre then crossed a catwalk, which provided them with a clear view of the cadaver.  The pieces had been arranged in roughly the same shape the Q had been in before its demise.

“When I was in elementary school,” Logan told Aguirre, captivated by the sight below, “we were given owl pellets.  We were expected to dissect them, remove the bones of mice or other rodents, and then reconstruct the body more or less on a piece of cardboard.  Did you ever do anything like that in Toronto?”

Aguirre shrugged.  “That was some time ago, but I don’t think so.”

Logan stared back down at the slain giant’s splayed body.  “I can’t help but think of that now.  At least, when I’m this close…”

“Just children playing with bones?” Aguirre said, raising an eyebrow.

“More or less.”

It was then that a stocky man with thinning hair approached.  Logan recognized him at once as Martin Wulff.  He had handpicked and personally recruited Wulff a few years before from the University of Munich, where he had been the premier professor of xenobiology.

“And how are you finding things, Martin?” Logan said.

“The accommodations are acceptable,” Wulff said.  “However, we’re still sorting ourselves out.”

“Yes, well, I never expected Stockholm to give us the bum’s rush so abruptly,” Logan said.  “Sorry to trouble you and the others.”

With a shrug, Wulff said, “No one seemed to see the transfer was coming, not even the scary men in dark suits they sent to inform us that we were being relocated.”

Stepping from behind Logan, Aguirre said, “Do either of you at least know why they sent us here?  I understand it’s an R-and-D facility, but it seems a little excessive, not to mention out of the way.  Besides, it’s not like these guys were ahead of the curve in anything.”

With another displeased hum, Logan said, “With the Q upping the ante lately, it’s likely the Security Council or the General Assembly wanted the added security of Argo’s heavy defenses and remote location.  Given how closely Q tend to emerge near singularities, perhaps they thought we would be safely out of the way.”

“And you, Wulff?” Aguirre said.

“From what I’ve gathered since we arrived,” Wulff said, “the OSS building initiative produced seven artificial islands, each meant to serve as beachheads and bunkers in the event of a massive invasion by the Q.  If Europe and North America were lost, then the plan was to move the UN’s more critical organs to a safe zone.  It seems Argo was the pinnacle, built to be the last bastion of humanity, if needed.”

“Or at least of the General Assembly,” Logan said.  Letting the rest of his myriad questions go with a sigh, he drummed his hand on the guardrail.  “In any case, Martin, why don’t you show us the rest of our new home?”

Wulff led them out of the warehouse and into the main lab.  A few rows of desks occupied one side of the workspace, a series of computers and large equipment occupied the remainder.  At the end of the lab, several figures in hazmat suits were unboxing and conveying the samples gathered in Iraq to sterile containment units.

Following Logan to the samples, Wulff reported, “We’ll get to these within a few days.  Presently we’re in the midst of running chemical tests on the cadaver from Illinois.  Since we began, I’ve ordered tests to be run on its XNA—mapping its phenotype sequences, classifying its genetic code in relation to other life forms, comparing and contrasting their amino acids.  I’d like to have a better idea of what we’re dealing—”

“I’d like you to take half your team off the Q from Chicago and to assign them to the new samples we’ve gathered,” Logan interrupted, his eyes firmly set on the samples.

Taken aback, Wulff asked, “What has you so excited?”

Logan aimed a finger at a particular container, one he immediately recognized among the other samples.  “I want to know a number of things by the end of this week, Martin, one of those being: did the Q in Chicago have a brain?”

Still uncertain, Wulff cleared his throat.  “We’ve catalogued what survived of the Chicago Q, but we haven’t found a brain.  Mostly intestines, muscles, bones, and a circulatory system of some description.”

“The Q in Iraq had a brain,” Logan said.  “We brought it with us.  I want everyone who isn’t working on the Chicago Q to begin mapping the brain we brought back.  It doesn’t appear to have decomposed in four years, but I want to know what’s inside as soon as humanly possible.”

Sensing his gravitas, Wulff said stiffly, “I’ll make the necessary arrangements this instant.”  He then left, caught between a stride and sprint.

Aguirre sidled up to Logan, watching the case containing the Iraq Q’s brain disappear into containment.  His shoulders sinking, he added, “I sometimes wonder what the scientific community will say if we ever end up publishing our findings.  I suppose they won’t believe it.  I hardly believe it myself.”

Arms folded, drumming his fingers, Logan said nothing.

***

“I apologize on everyone’s behalf,” Kearney said through a screen on the wall, transmitting from his office in Sweden.  “However, it appears the United Kingdom’s prime minister has some hesitation about transferring western Europe’s only psychic.  Apparently they’ve gotten used to her.”

“And where does that leave us?” Sam said, voicing both Toth and Heinrich’s unspoken concerns.  “If the MP continues, she risks incurring penalties.”

“It seems she’s pretty adamant,” Kearney said, equally concerned.  “That said, their UN ambassador is flying back from Stockholm to meet with the MP in person.  Apparently they’re to discuss the terms of Sergeant Alder’s transfer.”

“You think the ambassador can change the Prime Minister’s mind?” Sam said, already skeptical.

“I haven’t the foggiest notion,” Kearney said, “but he seems confident he’ll help the MP to see reason.  In any case, Freya will be delayed a few days more—though there’s no way to know for sure.  In the meantime, the Security Council’s advised you to focus on training Lucas Weir as quickly as possible.  I’ve also been asked to emphasize to you the importance of… ‘team-building exercises,’ or some nonsense, between him and Rashid.”

“We don’t need the Security Council to inform us of our duties,” Toth said, her eyes drilling into Kearney’s.

Unable to hold back a hearty laugh, Kearney leaned closer to his camera.  “Ever on your toes, Helena.  I expected you would ensure things on your end.  We’ll be sure to keep up our end, as well.”

Toth only nodded, though that seemed to be enough for Kearney.

“Right, then,” he concluded.  “That’s all for now.  I’ll keep you apprised on the situation as it develops.”  With that, the channel closed.

“Doctor Walker,” Toth said from over his shoulder, turning Sam around with only her words.  “Given your previous experiences with Sergeant Alder and the UK, what’s your opinion?”

Feeling unprepared, Sam said, “I’ve known Freya for years, as well as Wren.  But I can’t speak for the MP.  She’s new to the office and a bit more of a nationalist than her predecessor.”

“I see,” Toth said.  “I’d like detailed psychoanalyses on both Lucas Weir and Rashid Qasim, as well as everything you have already on Freya Alder, by our next meeting.”

“I’ll see to it immediately.”  Sam pushed himself to ask one burning question.  “By the way, Major-General…  Out of curiosity, I was wondering if you knew anything about why we’ve been transferred to Argo.”

Toth stared into Sam.  “I’ve been in command of this island for a few years now, but I only heard of such a transfer the day after Weir surfaced in Chicago.  But… I find it strange that they would consolidate such sizeable military force to this location, of all others.”

“I see.”

“Why do you ask?” Toth said.

Dodging the question, Sam said, “Given how quickly things have shifted, I was only wondering if you were also taken by surprise.”

Not bothering to hide how unconvinced she was, Toth decided to let the subject go.  Bidding a quick goodbye, she stepped out of the conference room, leaving Sam and Heinrich on their own.

With a breath of relief, Sam sank into a chair.  Engaging Toth only then had required all his nerve, anything to keep his voice or frame from shaking.

“You’re apparently still suspicious,” Heinrich said, looking down at him.  “I take it we’re seeing eye-to-eye now.”

“I’m only curious,” Sam repeated, though he did not sound so sure.

“Well,” Heinrich said, looking at the door, “she suspects something as well—you can see it in her.”

“I know,” Sam said.  “That’s what bothers me.”