Jim and Steve materialized at the Alliance base. The former spy held his stomach and exhaled sharply. Steve assumed he hadn’t crossed mediums in some time. It took at least a week of constant travel to become accustomed to this level of teleporting. As they walked down the corridor to the lift, he glanced over at Jim’s expression. It was blank as an empty canvas. Not even a clench or a muscle twitch.
Jim was a mysterious character. Nobody knew who he really was. That’s what made him the best spy the Alliance had and possibly the only reason he escaped Sigvald’s watchful eye alive. But being the spy he was, Steve watched him harden over time. Jim was willing to do things John and the rest would not dream of which made him the perfect man to do the dirty work for the leader of the Alliance.
The silence between them swelled, Jim’s presence becoming even more awkward. To the rest of the Alliance Jim had died years ago, his rouse only being known to Steve and John, The two most senior members of the organization.
“I’m sorry,” Steve finally said. “For putting you through all this.”
“Apologize to me when the mission is over,” Jim replied as they waited for the elevator to arrive at their floor.
Jim was a good actor, but even he couldn’t contain the discomfort he felt. Wrinkles formed on his brows and a his blank expression fell into a frown.
“Do you think they’ll be fine with me coming back?” Jim asked.
“Frankly, I don’t know,” Steve said. “There were mixed feelings surrounding your death. Some mourned, others didn’t.”
Steve didn’t enjoy Jim’s company, but he certainly didn’t despise it as some did. Something felt off about him. Perhaps it was too hard for Steve to accept that four years in deep cover may have changed his comrade’s perspective.
The elevator beeped and the doors opened for the two to step inside. Steve stepped inside but saw Jim frozen in place. “Come on, Jim. I’m sure it will be fine.”
With a courteous smile, he stepped into the elevator but it soon vanished the moment he turned around. This is not going to go well, Steve thought scratching his forehead.
Breach’s fist landed cleanly on Jim’s cheek, his body falling to the concrete floor with a thud. As Steve tried to break up the fight that had immediately sparked the moment Breach caught sight of the spy, the others watched unbothered. Ethan winced intermittently after every blow dealt to Jim but only pleaded for Breach to stop. After a minute of Breach’s onslaught, Amber sighed and yanked Breach away from Jim’s curled up body.
“That’s quite enough,” she said, tightening her grip on Breach’s arm.
Jim wiped the blood from the corner of his mouth and looked at it with disgust. He wiped it off on his shirt and stood up with a groan. “It’s nice to see you too, Breach. I nearly forgot what your knuckles felt like.”
Breach scowled. He ripped his arm from Amber’s grasp and moved it around in a circle, massaging his strained muscle. His gaze did not meet Jim’s. Instead, he made every effort to avoid it. Steve and Amber both flicked their eyes between the two, concerned.
He decided to change the topic to something more professional. “Jim has returned from his undercover work and has some information about the bio-weapon.”
Steve observed Ethan attentiveness to the subject being discussed. Rico arrived late… As usual… His mouthed still chewed on the last bit of food left and a bottle of water in his hand.
“Sorry I’m late, Sir,” he said with a casual salute.
The leader of the Alliance rolled his eyes and gestured for Rico to join the round table. Steve hauled a small cube no larger than the palm of his hand and slid it to the middle of the table.
“Show us what you’ve got,” he said nodding to Jim.
Jim placed hovered his tablet over the cube momentarily until a green light flashed twice. A holographic interactive screen appeared and filled the table. A rotating map of South Africa stood before the team of infiltrators.
“As you’re aware, the bio-weapon has been around for three months. While there is no concrete link between this and the bombing of the teleporting station a few days before its release, it’s too much of a coincidence to think they aren’t.”
He pulled up a model of the bio-weapon on screen. “This is a similar model to the virus released ten years ago.”
Steve cleared his throat and motioned for Ethan to speak. While sifting through information on the new recruit he came across a paper Ethan had written on the virus that killed Haley years ago. He was the expert in the room currently.
“Haven’t you studied this one before, Ethan?”
“Of course I have. I wrote a dissertation on it,” Ethan replied, a hint of annoyance in his voice.
Jim gestured to Ethan to speak, realizing this was not his area of expertise.
After a few seconds of analysis, Ethan leaned forward. “This is not looking good. It’s almost identical except for one characteristic. It mutates too rapidly and too sporadically to predict.”
“What does that mean?” asked John.
“It means a vaccine could work but it’ll take significantly longer,” said Ethan. “There’s really only two ways to kill off this virus.” He spread his arms out, zooming in on a piece of machinery embedded in the RNA of the virus. “This device right here is what controls the bio-weapon and its symptoms. Upon receiving specific frequencies from a main server, it forces a mutation in the RNA and transmits the signal to its closest agent.”
“Like a row of dominoes?” asked Breach.
Ethan nodded, “Disable the original transmitter and the bio-weapon is about as mild as the flu. It’s that or take your chances waiting for a vaccine.”
Steve contemplated Ethan’s words as the chatter of his surroundings faded to the background. It would be difficult to locate the transmitter let alone disable it. But the vaccine could take too long. He didn’t know how long he had before Sigvald detonated it. To add to all that was the question of Ethan’s truthfulness. He hadn’t determined if he was a spy or not so how could he trust anything he said? It wasn’t as if he had anyone else knowledgeable enough to call him out if he was lying about all of this to lure him into Sigvald’s clutches.
“If we go after the transmitter,” began Steve. “What are we looking for?”
Ethan stroked his chin and looked at the ceiling in thought. “I don’t know. A server room the size of the med bay maybe. It’s a lot of transmissions so the place has to be huge like back in the war.
Jim cleared his throat to draw attention to himself. “If we give him the doc he could have a look at some maps and try and narrow the position of the ser—”
“That won’t be necessary,” Steve said promptly. The rest of the infiltrators exchanged looks of confusion. While this was very necessary the last place Steve wanted vital intel in the hands of was Ethan. “I will deploy a handful of recon drones to scout for SEKT settlements and take them out one by one. We’ll find it eventually.”
“Wouldn’t it be easier to ju—”
“No,” Steve cut off Jim firmly before he could plant that seed. “The more we spend our time analyzing, the less time we have to act.”
Begrudgingly, Jim backed off and the rest followed suite. Closing the hologram, Steve tucked the box into the top pocket of his white shirt. He dismissed everyone except for John and Jim who he kept behind for a meeting.
Though the table was small, John kept as much distance from Jim as he could. Steve could see the blind man’s muscles tense up. One slap from John might’ve been enough to knock him out cold. Steve tapped his feet twice and exhaled loudly. John released his clenched fist and tried his best to relax his body.
Steve slid Ethan’s file to Jim. “Haley’s son. Ethan Rider.”
Jim’s brows furrowed in confusion. “What the hell is he doing here?”
“He dropped in on of our missions. He was going to die so John brought him in. His willingness to join us is… concerning to say the least.”
Jim raised an eyebrow, “and you think he’s a spy?” Jim chuckled under his breath. “Spies are usually hard to read, you know. This guy? He’s an open canvas.”
“Perhaps too open?” muttered Steve more to himself than to the other two in the room. “He came in for an interview with our folks topside. He could be valuable… Or dangerous.”
Jim’s eyes widened as he continued to read the dossier compiled of Ethan. “Is this why you let him join so abruptly? No checks? No verification with the higher-ups?”
Steve shifted in his seat. He was going to face a lot of flak from the higher-ups in his next meeting with them. “I let him stay. Our goals align for now. Times were desperate and his arrival seemed like a gift from heaven.”
“A curse from hell often looks more beautiful than a gift from heaven,” stated Jim.
Steve held an iron gaze with Jim. “He doesn’t know Sigvald killed her. Let’s keep it that way as long as we can.”
“Why can’t we just tell him?” John asked after being silent for most of the conversation. “He’s going to find out eventu—”
“Because he’s valuable as an agent in the field with an immense knowledge of the bio-weapon. Not as an assassin,” Jim interjected.
“Exactly. Just keep an eye on him. You know a spy when you see one. Just make sure we can trust him before we give him any more information.”
Jim shifted his eyes between the tablet and Steve. “Sure thing.”
After looking at Steve for permission, he left the room silently. At the door, he paused and sighed. “That was one hell of a welcome party.”
After Jim had left, John slammed his fist on the table making Steve nearly jump out of his skin. “You better have a damn good reason for bringing him back here,” he hissed.
“I’m not thrilled about working with him either. But I need him. He has information and information is the name of the game we’re playing.”
John lifted his head and stared at the ceiling. He paced up and down the room, the worry growing on his face. “He’s unpredictable, disloyal and only serves his own goals. The worst part is we don’t even know what his goals are.”
“He’s disloyal to us, but he’s always been loyal to the mission. His goals are secondary to that. I trust him only because of that.”
After a prolonged silence, John yielded. “Fair point. What do you want me to do?”
“Keep him on a leash. I don’t care how you do it just make sure he doesn’t cross any red lines. We don’t want a repeat of Sakawira village.”
“And what of Ethan?”
“If there’s anyone who can snuff out a spy it’s Jim. Takes one to know one.”
John shook his head. “I still don’t like the feeling of it. You saw what Breach did. They’re still hurting and now, at a crucial time, he’s come back and reopened those wounds. I hope you’re right about this.”
Steve rubbed his forehead. He tilted his head back and sighed. "I hope so too, John."