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About Helix: Episode 5 (Inversion)
About Helix: Episode 6 (Exclave)
By Nathan M. Farrugia
About Nathan M. Farrugia
Olesya faces her biggest threat yet:
A devastating attack that will shatter Europe.
While Purity celebrate their political victory with a march through Wrocław, Olesya discovers the target of their next attack: themselves. And millions of civilians.
Their objective is simple: blame Olesya’s team for the devastating attack, and rally support for Purity. To thwart their plan, Olesya must call on the last person she wants to ask for help—Sophia.
With the stakes higher than ever before, Olesya and Sophia must work together, before it’s too late.
Kaliningrad, Kaliningrad Oblast
The forest blotted out gray clouds, except for a sharp strip of sky above the road. Sophia sat in her stolen Opel Vectra sedan, parked on the shoulder, and watched the side mirrors. In the distance, her target glinted on the horizon.
She started her engine and pulled the sedan sharply across both lanes, then climbed out and stood on the white line. Not one, but two SUVs roared toward her, shimmering black. Neither slowed down.
Sophia couldn’t make out the driver through tinted glass, but she knew who it was. The SUVs were nearly on her, and for a moment she thought they would go off-road and swerve around her. She stepped away from the sedan, her hands out. She wanted them to see it was her.
The front SUV slowed to a halt about forty meters out. No one emerged from it.
Sophia stood her ground and waited.
At last, with the engine still running, Olesya climbed from the SUV and stood beside it. ‘Your car’s blocking the road.’
‘There’s something you need to know,’ Sophia said.
‘That you’re not leaving Eastern Europe, like we told you to.’ Olesya opened her gray coat for an easy draw. ‘I can see that.’
‘I found a kill switch in our DNA,’ Sophia said. ‘The Fifth Column put it there with our new abilities, when we were children.’
‘If you’ll recall, I never received those new abilities.’ Olesya gestured to the people inside the SUVs. ‘And neither did they. We have only what we were born with.’
Sophia was expecting that answer. ‘Every operative you hunt has the new ones. That’s a lot of valuable intelligence lost. And potential allies—like us.’ She gestured to her hip pocket. ‘I have the papers for you. Proof.’
‘If this kill switch exists inside every Fifth Column operative, as you say it does, what’s to stop me triggering it?’ Olesya asked.
‘You won’t trigger it,’ Sophia said.
‘What makes you so sure?’ A light wind ruffled Olesya’s pale hair. ‘One switch to kill all the operatives. It’d save me a lot of time.’
‘It would also kill an old friend of yours, Xiu.’
Sophia could see the fear wash over Olesya, cold and ocean-blue.
‘If there was a kill switch, you’d be dead already,’ Olesya said.
Sophia shrugged. ‘Someone at the Fifth Column planted the switches, but the organization itself doesn’t have access to them. It was done in secret.’
Olesya brushed hair from her face. ‘The whole Fifth Column is secret, that’s the point.’
‘Have you heard of Intron?’ Sophia took a step forward.
‘That’s close enough.’ Olesya’s right hand twitched. ‘Drop the papers on the ground.’
Sophia took a sheaf of notes from her pocket, nine pages joined with a paperclip, and let them flutter to the road before taking five long steps back. Olesya approached cautiously.
‘I can take the shot.’ Czarina’s voice was a whisper in Sophia’s ear.
Fifty meters inside the forest, Czarina lay flat, camouflaged and holding a hunting rifle.
Olesya picked up the papers and glanced over the first page. She removed and pocketed the paperclip, then rolled the notes up tightly and shoved them in her coat pocket.
‘How did you find us?’ Olesya asked.
‘Oh, do you like your operative tracking?’ Sophia asked.
Olesya walked away. ‘We don’t need it. We don’t need you.’
‘You do if you want to remove these kill switches,’ Sophia said.
Olesya paused, half inside the SUV. ‘If I see you on Russian soil again, I will shoot you.’
Nasira was on watch. It was early morning, so she stood on the back porch, listening to a breeze stir the forest behind the old mansion. Their infrared motion-sensitive cameras would notify her of any activity, but she liked to check anyway. Creaking floorboards alerted her to people emerging from inside.
‘Where are you two going?’ she asked.
Aviary and Damien froze in the doorway.
Damien cleared his throat. ‘Just some training.’
‘Yeah!’ Aviary said.
‘Don’t get it into your head that operative life is all exciting.’ Nasira lit a cigarette. ‘It’s a whole lot of sitting around and nothing happening.’
‘Nothing happening is good sometimes.’ Aviary rocked on the heels of her sneakers. ‘Do you want to come with us?’
‘I’m good,’ Nasira said. ‘Sophia won’t be happy you’re training her.’
‘I’m not either.’ Damien stepped off the porch and onto the grass.
Nasira chuckled to herself. ‘That why you do it while she’s not around?’
‘Yep!’ Aviary said. ‘And if she finds out, we blame Damien!’ She launched off the porch and shoved Damien forward.
‘Stay close to the edge of the forest, so I can see you guys,’ Nasira said.
Aviary walked backwards and saluted her. ‘Copy that.’
Nasira had time to watch the pair disappear into the forest before the floorboards creaked again and Ezra stepped out onto the porch. Hélio’s bodyguard gave Nasira a sharp nod, which she barely returned.
‘We’re supposed to take Hélio back to Brazil tomorrow,’ Ezra said.
Nasira drew on her cigarette. ‘Shame we couldn’t dig anything up.’
Ezra clasped her hands behind her back. ‘I said supposed to, but—’
‘What she’s trying to say’—Hélio appeared in the doorway behind her, scratching his neck—‘is that I need a lab where I can run some tests on the kill switch.’
‘We got our answer in Budapest,’ Nasira said.
Hélio swallowed. ‘Yeah, well I don’t trust Doctor Meresz.’
‘You tell me this now?’ Nasira kept her attention on Aviary and Damien as they moved between the trees. ‘You need to talk to Sophia.’
Hélio nodded. ‘As soon as she’s back. I’ll gather my notes.’
‘Do that. We’ve been here too long, we’re probably going to move shop tomorrow.’
Hélio disappeared inside and Nasira turned her attention to his bodyguard. ‘Ezra, right? You don’t have to stand at attention.’
Ezra remained perfectly still. ‘I am simply standing.’
‘Can you do it somewhere else? It’s creeping me out.’
Ezra leaned forward, both hands on the handrail, eyes on Damien and Aviary out at the forest’s edge.
‘You have a very odd team.’ Ezra said. ‘Did Sophia hire you?’
‘What?’ Nasira said. ‘Hell no, we work together.’
‘But she is the leader?’
‘Yeah. She earned that a long time ago.’
‘She is preoccupied with the Russians,’ Ezra said. ‘It concerns me.’
‘She wants more people on our side.’
Ezra looked at her. ‘But you think otherwise, yes?’
‘You want to lighten up a bit? Or does Intron remove your personalities when you sign up?’ Nasira asked.
Ezra cleared her throat. ‘When you’re on the job—’
‘When are you not on the job?’ Nasira asked. ‘Unless you’re an Intron employee with superannuation and paid leave. Then I guess you get time off.’
‘You could take a vacation,’ Ezra said.
Nasira blew smoke in her direction. ‘Last time I went on a vacation, Intron kidnapped Jay and stole his abilities.’ She let the silence stretch out, waiting for Ezra to break it.
‘What is it like?’ Ezra asked at last. ‘Doing what you do? Out of … loyalty.’
Nasira eyed her. ‘Loyalty is for Fifth Column zombies.’
‘So why do you do it?’ Ezra asked. ‘This little rebellion against the Fifth Column.’
‘If we don’t, who else is gonna?’
Ezra’s gaze narrowed. ‘But you choose this.’
Nasira ground out her cigarette under her boot. ‘The stuff we did, as operatives. We don’t deserve to be alive. While we are, might as well balance it.’
‘And are you? Balancing it?’
‘Ain’t really any of your business,’ Nasira said. ‘You got somebody else to harass?’
‘As a matter of fact, yes. I need to speak with Jay about his experience in Colombia,’ Ezra said. ‘Do you know where he is?’
‘Clearing his head,’ Nasira said. ‘Went for a walk about half an hour ago.’
Ezra nodded, and headed inside. At the door, she stopped. ‘Does Jay like to clear his head?’
‘Which Jay?’ Nasira asked. ‘The one from Project GATE who saved my life once, by accidentally defibrillating my heart? Or the one who lost his abilities and can’t deal with it?’
Ezra considered. ‘The one you love.’
‘Why do you still want training?’ Damien stood between two large oaks and faced Aviary.
‘Our last lesson was months ago, in Nevada,’ Aviary said. ‘I think I need more than that.’
‘It’s not a requirement.’
Aviary stared at him. ‘You don’t want to train me, do you?’
‘I will if you want me to.’
She placed her hands on her hips. ‘So what’s today’s lesson?’
‘That sounds … not exciting.’
‘Your awareness isn’t fully developed yet,’ he said. ‘And that’s because of your anticipation. It’s interfering.’
‘Is that supposed to encourage me?’
‘What do you think makes a good pickpocket?’
‘Speed.’ She nodded. ‘Real speed.’
Damien stepped forward and grasped her elbow. She stopped breathing, looked down at her elbow. As she did, he took her phone from the other pocket and waved it in front of her.
Her eyebrows narrowed. ‘Ha! Cheap trick.’
‘Distraction.’ He handed the phone back to her. ‘When you’re out in the field—and the field is anywhere—you need to spot an operative as early as possible.’
‘I thought you were going to teach me how to fight,’ she said.
‘There’s a lot more to it than fighting.’
‘You take the fun out of everything.’ Aviary chewed her lip thoughtfully. ‘Isn’t spotting an operative really hard? I mean, the whole point of their training is to never be seen, right?’
‘That’s true,’ Damien said. ‘They have a range of disguises and if you know what they are, you have a better chance of spotting them.’
‘Oh, like in Mission: Impossible?’ Aviary asked.
‘No, that’s stupid,’ he said. ‘More like a spy movie.’
‘Right.’ She tilted her head. ‘So what should I be looking out for?’
‘The most effective disguise is none at all,’ Damien said. ‘The extremely ordinary person. This is how an operative blends into the baseline. Same clothing as everyone else. Same attitude as everyone else. Same movement as everyone else. They dissolve into their environment. There is nothing remarkable about them. They look—’
‘Boring?’ she said.
‘And your job is to identify boring before it’s too late,’ he said.
Aviary frowned. ‘How?’
‘Intention,’ Damien said. ‘You need to learn to see their intention.’
‘Yeah, well I’m not Sophia. I can’t smell their emotions like some sort of bloodhound.’
‘You don’t need to,’ he said. ‘Even with a trained operative in a crowd, you can see their intention, if you know what to look for. And when you’re fighting them, you can feel their intention before they strike. That makes you faster.’
‘Sounds out of my league,’ Aviary said. ‘Are you going to teach me that? Can you even teach me that?’
‘Close your eyes.’
She did so and smiled. ‘What are you going to do, huh?’
‘Oh, right. What about your neck?’ She pointed to the wound from the Purity rally.
‘It’s healing, don’t worry about me. Now I want you to relax and breathe how I’ve taught you.’
Aviary exhaled noisily through her mouth, then her stomach expanded as she inhaled.
‘That’s good,’ he said.
‘I sound like Darth Vader.’
‘You’re engaging your vagus nerve when you exhale,’ Damien said. ‘The same thing cats do when they purr. It will calm you, and increase your focus.’
‘Fine.’ She kept breathing. Damien observed her arms were rigid and her body still carried tension. That would slow her down.
‘Close your eyes.’ He circled her. ‘I’m going to touch you, but I want you to react with minimal energy. Don’t overthink it. Just brush me off or counterattack.’
Aviary nodded. ‘All right, got it.’
Her shoulders slumped. ‘Got it.’
Damien grabbed her arm. She tensed, then clamped down on him with her other hand.
‘Minimal reaction,’ he said.
She released her grip, and seemed about to apologize, then turned her body. The movement broke his grasp.
‘Good.’ He padded softly around her again. ‘Keep talking. Don’t focus on me, just let it happen.’
‘At the rally … Sophia saved me,’ Aviary said. ‘I could’ve died yesterday.’
‘And you saved me,’ he said.
‘Not really, she saved all of us,’ she said. ‘Especially on the roof.’
Damien reached out to her chest, hesitated, then shifted his hand higher, placing his palm on her collarbone. She flinched, then grasped his hand firmly and turned away from him. Her shoulder pushed his arm out, locking it; just a little more pressure would break his arm.
‘Very good,’ he said.
Aviary released him. ‘Did Sophia rescue you? Like the others?’
‘What do you mean?’
‘Did she grab you in the middle of some black operation, then whisk you off to her secret bat cave so she could deprogram you?’
‘Keep contact with my arms, even when I’m not touching you. You need to feel my intent before I make my move.’ Damien moved gently around her. ’Why would she have a cave full of bats?’
Aviary sighed. ‘Forget that bit. But everything else I just said.’
Her fingers ran lightly across his arm. He watched as she turned with him—eyes closed and hand still on his arm. She was getting good at this.
Gently, he grabbed her collar with one hand. She didn’t flinch this time. Instead, she slid her hand down his arm, her fingers closing over his elbow. At the same time, her other hand ran up his body. With one hand, she pulled his elbow out. With the other, she pushed his head away. He dropped to his knees.
Damien brought a knee up to rest his arm. ‘Not quite like that.’
‘Did I do that wrong?’ she asked.
He rose to his feet. ‘No, that was good. I mean I stayed with the Fifth Column for a while. Sophia didn’t abduct me or take me anywhere. So…’
With her eyes still closed, she smirked. ‘So you were like an undercover spy?’
‘For a little while.’
He shifted around her, while she maintained contact and tracked his movement. When he got behind her, he lightly pressed his fist into her shoulder blade. She yielded to his movement and turned. His fist slipped along her back, over her shoulder. She grasped it and pulled down on his arm, lightly.
Another arm break, with the right pressure.
‘You’re getting the hang of it.’
She released him. ‘I’m glad you think so, because I have no idea.’
‘Are you sure you want to learn this?’
‘You don’t want me to?’
‘I don’t want anything to happen to you,’ he said.
‘Yeah, well same with you.’
Damien hesitated; she would have felt the change in his movement.
Her hand touched his wrist. ‘You don’t think I can handle this,’ she said. ‘Do you?’
‘I never said that. Right now, you’re completely aware of my intent. That means you don’t need to guess my next move. You feel it.’
Aviary’s fingertips traveled lightly across his arm.
Damien raised his arm to attack.
Aviary stepped in close—eyes closed—and cut him off. ‘What if I can handle it?’ Her breath was warm on his neck.
He leaned slightly in. ‘That’s what scares me.’
A sharp buzzing broke the silence; Aviary’s phone. She stepped away from him, opening her eyes and reaching for the device. With his sensitive hearing, Damien could hear Nasira’s voice—both from Aviary’s phone and all the way back at the porch.
‘Sophia’s back,’ Nasira said. ‘You might want to get in here.’
‘The Russian hunters are moving south, to Poland,’ Sophia said.
Felix, one of Hélio’s bodyguards, placed his hands on his hips. ‘Is that a problem?’
Czarina eyed Sophia. ‘You want everyone in on this meeting?’
The bodyguards—Ezra and Felix—watched her carefully.
‘I don’t think we have time to be picky right now,’ Sophia said.
Behind Sophia, Damien drew the blinds and checked the surveillance cameras on her phone. ‘All clear,’ he said.
Sophia moved for the dining table, where Aviary’s laptop was resting. She checked the map to find it was still tracking Olesya’s phone, then she flattened the screen over the keyboard so everyone could see.
‘What did they say?’ Nasira asked.
‘Not much,’ Sophia said. ‘That’s why Aviary has hacked the mike on Olesya’s phone and Ieva is translating what they say to English. Now we know their destination and we know their operation. And we can track their movements.’
Aviary pointed to her screen. ‘Purity are holding a victory march in Wrocław tomorrow. Terror threat level is high, specifically in Wrocław.’
‘That’s ‘cause they raised it themselves,’ Nasira said.
‘If there’s one thing that can help Purity’s cause, it’s an act of violence against them. And all that violence has just arrived in Wrocław.’ Sophia elevated her phone; the screen showed a cluster of blips pulsing yellow: operatives on standby.
Damien’s eyes went wide. ‘How many are there?’
‘Eight Fifth Column operatives. Four engaged and four in reserve.’
Jay whistled. ‘Those Russians sure have their work cut out for them.’
‘The operatives’ activation time is tomorrow, midday,’ Aviary said. ‘The victory march should be in full swing by then.’
Ezra, Hélio’s second bodyguard, leaned over the table for a closer look at the blips. ‘What do they have planned?’
Sophia chewed her lip. ‘From what we’ve overheard Olesya saying, it’s a mass shooting,’ she said. ‘On a scale we’ve never seen.’
‘Do they have a projected number of casualties?’ Damien asked.
‘One hundred to three hundred,’ Sophia said.
‘Holy shit,’ Nasira said.
‘Is there a proxy shooter for this?’ Czarina asked.
Sophia took a deep breath. ‘There are four proxies.’
Aviary raised her hand. ‘And Olesya was talking about kidnapped Russian intelligence officers. Not sure how that fits in though.’
‘I can take an educated guess,’ Sophia said. ‘The Fifth Column are putting Russia’s fingerprints all over this.’
‘That’s a good reason not to be there,’ Ezra said.
‘No,’ Sophia said. ‘It’s a good reason to be there. If the Fifth Column get away with this, Purity become immeasurably powerful and there’ll be no place for people like Olesya’s team. Especially when the whole world hates them.’
‘Yeah, I’m pretty sure that’s already happening,’ Czarina said.
Jay’s eyebrows wrinkled together. ‘Is it still called a lone wolf if there are four proxies? Or is it like a wolf pack now?’
‘What else did they say?’ Czarina asked.
Aviary shrugged. ‘Not much. They complained about the quality of their cigarette filters, and some explosives stolen from Purity somewhere in Ukraine.’
‘Why don’t we just catch the Fifth Column operatives?’ Damien asked. ‘Before they start shooting. That’s the whole point of why you’re here, isn’t it?’
Sophia shared a glance with Ieva and Czarina. ‘The operatives have been upgraded.’
Damien’s brow furrowed. ‘Upgraded? How?’
Czarina snapped her fingers. ‘Punch-you-through-a-wall upgraded.’
‘Can’t you just deprogram these jokers?’ Nasira asked. ‘Avoid the punch-on.’
‘We tried,’ Czarina said. ‘But they keep … killing themselves.’
Damien scratched his trimmed facial hair. ‘Can you revise your trigger phrases?’
‘That takes time,’ Sophia said. ‘Right now, we need to help the Russians.’
‘With all due respect,’ Czarina said, ‘they don’t want our help.’
‘If we stand around waiting for their permission, it will be too late,’ Sophia said. ‘Whoever wants in, we leave in half an hour.’ She turned to Hélio’s bodyguards. ‘That goes for you too.’
‘Sorry,’ Felix said. ‘It’s not our fight.’
Sophia nodded, and surveyed the group standing around the table. ‘All right, whose fight is it?’
‘Mine,’ Nasira said.
Czarina crossed her arms. ‘Fine, I guess I’m in.’
‘Yeah, me too,’ Jay said. ‘If you need me.’
‘Just remember,’ Sophia said, ‘you don’t have your—’
‘I know, I know,’ Jay said. ‘No regeneration, no electrogenic ability, no infrared vision. Just plain old me. If that’s enough.’
‘Of course,’ Sophia said.
‘Count me in,’ Damien said.
‘Me too,’ Ieva said. ‘Please.’
Sophia looked over her shoulder at Aviary.
‘Do you actually want me there?’ Aviary asked.
‘At a safe distance.’
Aviary nodded. ‘Should be OK then.’
‘Do any of you get paid for this job?’ Hélio asked. ‘Even, you know, danger money or something?’ He looked at each member of the group. ‘You’re risking your lives like it’s nothing.’
‘It ain’t nothing,’ Nasira said, ‘it’s everything.’
‘The payoff is we survive a little longer,’ Sophia said. ‘And we come one step closer to destroying the real evil of this world.’
Hélio wet his lips. ‘The Fifth Column. Right. So you volunteer—no money, no funds?’
‘We can fund ourselves,’ Ieva said. ‘If that’s what you’re asking. We skim ATMs.’
Czarina gave Ieva a fist bump. ‘Victimless crime.’
‘Except … for the banks,’ Ieva said.
Hélio frowned. ‘ATMs. But you don’t risk your lives for that. You can do it whenever you want.’
‘There was that one time we did a heist,’ Jay said, until Nasira put a hand over his mouth.
‘I know it don’t make sense to someone like you,’ Nasira said, ‘but that’s how we roll. Stopping the Fifth Column and’—she looked over at Sophia, then at Jay—‘helping each other.’
Hélio raised his hand. ‘I … I think I want to volunteer.’
Everyone stared at him.
‘I can … I could be Aviary’s assistant. I’m no expert, but I know my way around some things.’ Hélio pointed his thumb over at his bodyguards. ‘And they could help.’
Ezra spoke through gritted teeth. ‘We don’t recommend that course of action.’
‘Your orders are, essentially, to do what I say,’ Hélio said. ‘Is that right?’
‘Your safety overrides your orders,’ Felix said.
‘Then keep me at a distance.’ He gave Sophia a nod. ‘My orders remain.’
‘You’re here to find the kill switch,’ Sophia said. ‘And you didn’t. So why are you helping us?’
‘Because I’m not done yet,’ he said.
‘What do you mean?’ Sophia asked.
He removed a USB stick from his pocket. ‘I looked through the virologist’s report from Budapest. The results of her testing.’ He set the stick on the table. ‘She forgot to change the date. It’s outdated. I compared it to the files from when Hal Claycomb learned about the kill switch. The dates match.’
‘Hal Claycomb?’ Sophia asked.
‘He’s a Fifth Column agent, I’ll fill you in,’ Nasira said.
‘What are you saying?’ Jay asked Hélio. ‘That she didn’t even test Nasira’s DNA sample?’
‘I’m saying she probably discovered the kill switch in the first place.’
‘The email between Hal and the scientist,’ Aviary said. ‘You think that was Doctor Meresz?’
‘Was her name mentioned?’ Hélio asked.
‘No,’ Aviary said. ‘But the email went to an Intron email address, and she had one. Actually, so do you...’
‘Why would I be here if it was me?’ Hélio asked. ‘Think about it.’
‘All right, so we go back,’ Ezra said. ‘This time we don’t ask for Meresz to do the test, we make her.’
‘No.’ Nasira shook her head. ‘She’s probably dead by now.’
Sophia’s stomach knotted. ‘Explain.’
‘She was scared,’ Nasira said. ‘And not of us.’
‘Nasira’s right,’ Hélio said. ‘We need to run our own tests for the kill switch.’
‘We can do that back in Brazil, can’t we?’ Felix asked.
‘I’m not returning empty-handed.’
‘Fine, you can stay with us,’ Sophia said. ‘But there’s no need to put yourself at risk today.’
‘Yeah,’ Czarina said. ‘You don’t owe us anything.’
‘I said I wanted to volunteer.’ Hélio looked at Sophia. ‘Isn’t my word enough?’
‘Not nearly,’ Sophia said. ‘You can stay with Aviary and Damien, away from the action. I’m sure you can help them.’ She turned to Aviary. ‘Keep an eye on Olesya’s phone and the operatives in Wrocław. Can you prep a spare phone to track the operatives?’
‘Sure,’ Aviary said. ‘I have small, wearable cameras too, so I can see what everyone’s doing.’ She held up a small black camera the size of a coin.
Sophia nodded her approval. It couldn’t hurt. ‘Everyone, sort your kit. We’ll take three vehicles—Hélio, you can have one to yourself with your bodyguards. Jay, we’re running pistols, but I have one modified M4 with your name on it.’
‘Giving me the carbine?’ He chewed his lip. ‘Are the optics magnified?’
‘No,’ she said. ‘But I can swap out the holographic for a scope.’
‘That can work. But are you sure?’ he asked. ‘I’m not enhanced anymore.’
‘You’re our best sharpshooter.’
Olesya stretched up to the top of the supermarket shelf and selected a packet of ground coffee, all the while focusing her awareness on the person approaching from behind. The supermarket was quiet at this time of night, save for the pair of tired paramedics wandering the confectionary aisle after their shift.
‘Olesya,’ said the man, his voice marking him as young and American.
She’d already drawn her pistol inside her coat and pointed the barrel under her arm. The American would see the barrel pressing against her material, and maybe think twice about trying anything.
She looked over her shoulder at him, standing there in a jacket and faded jeans, his skin a pale olive and his stubble overgrown. A bandage on his neck made it look like he’d been attacked by a vampire, but his large nose and scruffy hair were familiar.
Olesya held the coffee in front of her so she could still shoot him from under her arm. ‘Do I know you?’
‘It’s been a while, hasn’t it?’
She turned to face him properly, and a smirk pulled at the corner of his lips. He broke eye contact and smoothed his jacket with both hands.
Sophia wasn’t lying, she thought. ‘Damien. You’re alive.’
‘To my surprise,’ Damien said. ‘Are you going to shoot me?’
‘I hope not.’ He raised his hands. ‘I’m free.’
‘No, just free,’ he said. ‘Can we … talk somewhere?’
‘How did you find me?’ she asked.
‘My phone?’ Olesya evaluated her options. ‘Sophia sent you. Is she with you now?’
‘This is not a good time.’
‘Five minutes and I’ll be gone.’
‘Somehow I don’t believe that.’ She took a step toward him. ‘But what I do believe is you need a drink.’
Damien didn’t object in the two seconds she gave him before leaving the aisle to pay for her coffee and bottled water at the register. The disinterested cashier, a man with rosy cheeks and an aversion to eye contact, took her cash. Damien waited patiently by the exit and, without a word, accompanied her to her vehicle, only to pause at a trashcan.
‘Don’t you want to dispose of your phone?’
Ignoring the question, she turned to face him. ‘Tell me one thing.’
Damien swallowed. ‘OK.’
‘Why do you follow Sophia?’
‘Because she won’t rest until she rights her wrongs.’ He stared at the trashcan. ‘Even then, I don’t think she’ll stop.’
It wasn’t the answer Olesya expected, but it would do. She unlocked her car, dropped her groceries on the seat and slammed the door. Then, indicating a restaurant across the road with dimmed lights and vacant tables, she set off.
Damien followed without protest; they crossed the road together, in silence, and entered the restaurant. Olesya chose the table farthest from the others, one where they could both keep an eye on the entrance.
She sat opposite Damien, adjusting to his adult appearance. His round face had narrowed slightly and his hair was shorter. He had dark facial hair, trimmed short, and messy brown hair. His nose was larger now and there was a bandage on one side of his neck.
‘It’s really you,’ she said. ‘And you’re not a programmed operative.’
‘Not for a while now,’ he said. ‘You seem surprised.’
‘I was waiting for the day when we’d have to hunt you down.’
‘Well, I’m glad that day hasn’t come.’
‘What about Jay?’
‘He’s holding up.’
‘What happened to your neck?’
He touched it gingerly. ‘Angry mob.’
‘I didn’t know you and Jay that well—I didn’t know anyone in Firebird Squad that well—but you were good to me.’
‘More than Ark?’
She suppressed a laugh. ‘That’s a low bar.’
‘Did he make it?’
She exhaled slowly. ‘He’s on my team now.’
A waiter approached their table and produced menus with a flourish, then asked in English, ‘Would you like to order drinks?’
Damien glanced quickly at the menu. ‘Green tea. And some cold water please.’
She shot him a stare. ‘Are you serious?’
‘You have a big day tomorrow,’ he said.
Olesya sighed. ‘Two, please.’
Once the waiter had gone, Damien cleared his throat. ‘There’s something you need to know about this operation.’
‘Operation?’ Olesya forced a smile. ‘I’m just here to see the sights.’
Damien shrugged. ‘The victory march. That will be some sight.’
She leaned back in her chair. ‘Is there something you want to tell me, Damien?’
‘Everything that happens tomorrow’—he paused as a couple of patrons stood and left the restaurant—‘will be blamed on Russia. If you’re on the ground, doing whatever you’re going to do, you will be implicated.’
‘If we’re on the ground,’ she said.
Damien spoke softly. ‘Put us on the ground.’
Olesya leaned in, her elbows on the table. ‘If the Fifth Column are going to blame me, they don’t need me on the ground. They don’t even need me in the country. One billion dollars a year in propaganda goes a long way.’ She paused, curious about the bandage on his neck. ‘Love bite?’
Damien touched it gingerly. ‘Purity rally. I almost bled out.’
‘You should stop attending Purity rallies.’
‘We captured one of their hired rabble rousers.’ He pulled out his phone and brought up a photo. ‘He had an implant of some sort in his neck.’
She looked the photo over. Small, rectangular. ‘It looks … like a microchip.’
‘Two weeks ago, I was captured at a border crossing in Guatemala,’ Damien said. ‘Purity, again. Microchip, again.’
‘And you think everyone at the victory march is chipped?’ Olesya asked. ‘Like pets?’
He took his phone back. ‘Maybe the important ones.’
The waiter returned with a pot of tea and two cups. Damien poured and added cold water.
Olesya folded her arms. ‘Is there anything else?’
‘This is a big operation.’ Damien lowered the teapot. ‘And your team is five, right?’
‘Five trained,’ she said. ‘Very well trained.’
Damien gave her a slight grin. ‘It’s still only five. You could make that twelve.’
She eased back in her chair. ‘Even if I wanted to work with you, there’s no way I could get authorization on that.’
‘Would you need it?’
Damien sipped his tea. ‘We both know the parameters for tomorrow. And we’re both planning to stop the shooting. We can do it separately or we can do it together. That’s your choice.’
‘I’m sure Sophia would prefer it wasn’t,’ she said.
‘You need help,’ he said. ‘You may not want it, but you need it.’
‘Playing hard ball, now?’ Olesya suppressed the urge to laugh. ‘You just arrive in Wrocław, out of nowhere, and expect me to trust a rogue operative? Who is dangerous, and likely a bit crazy.’
Damien smiled. ‘Dangerous, well, sure. But I’m not—’
‘I’m talking about