THREE “I find your cooking skills to be quite frightening. I think the commands would find you quite useful in the chemical warfare department.” Danielle slammed her tray of burnt cookies on the counter and turned to face her friend with an indignant countenance. “If you‟re Martha Fucking Stewart then why don‟t you tell me what the fuck I‟m doing wrong.” “Like I know.” Troy leaned against the same counter as the foul-smelling cookies with an amused smile plastered upon his face. “Although I have a feeling you‟ve never received a real cooking lesson in your life.” “I took shop, what can I say? Although in retrospect I guess I should‟ve taken home ec just for the chicks.” “Too much thinking too late, Danny-Lynn. Now, what are you going to do with those hideous food specimens? You better throw them out before they start ranking up your kitchen.” Troy turned up his nose to emphasize his point. Danielle bowed her head and considered the darkened edges of her chocolate-chip cookies with a slanted blonde brow. “Maybe I should give them to Hotler as a token of my disappreciation of her always trying to get into my khakis.” “Be careful what you wish for – you might poison her and then they‟ll discover her crazy-gay during the autopsy, and the game would be up for all of us.” Troy pushed himself away from the counter and turned on the sink to wash some debris off his fingers. “Then the rest of the department would have to kill you. And the rest of the military would have to be sterilized in fear of the spreading gay.” “It‟ll be like Typhoid Mary, but with better fashion sense.” Troy made a dubious popping sound with his tongue before turning off the sink and grabbing a paper towel to dry off with. “On a somewhat related but completely different topic, whatever did you end up doing last night? You blew me off for some dinner date and were still all by yourself when I called you later. Was the date really that bad that you couldn‟t even score?” “It wasn‟t like that.” Danielle pushed her friend out of the way in order to fill the sink with their bowls and other cooking utensils. She swerved the faucet to the left and let hot water mix with the leftover dough before shutting it off again and staring into the odd combination of white dough and murky city water. “It was more like…business.” “Sex is business – dirty business.” “Yes, Troy, that it is.” “But seriously, what were you up to last night? A little round-about with the plastic boyfriend?” “Not that it‟s any of your fuckin‟ business, but no. I decided to waste my Saturday night playing with my photo album instead.” Troy rolled his eyes and allowed a harried sigh to escape his lips. “Oh, God, not the album from hell? Girl, I thought you promised me you were going to burn that thing? If you let those stupid memories keep dragging you down, your immune system will get shot and Hottie will just be able to swoop down on you that much easier. C‟mon, now, forget that stupid whore and let‟s clean up this mess. If you‟re a good girl I‟ll take you downtown and to a matinee in order to cheer you up.” “I don‟t need cheering up.” Danielle stole Troy‟s towel and wiped her hands on it as well. “I feel just fine, thanks. By the way…” her voice trailed off to an almost uncertain whisper. “You‟re going to hate me for asking this, but have you seen her lately?” “God damn, Danielle, are you still pining for that uncertain bint? She dumped your gay ass a year ago and you expect me to play the nasty best friend and drill her for every little detail of her life? Yeah, saw her at the post office the other day. She completely ignored me, like I didn‟t even exist.” Danielle threw the towel in the garbage and sniffed up some air as opposed to releasing the sneeze building up inside her. Some time ago Troy and Ally actually got along rather well, the three of them not opposed to sharing a movie or meal together after work before Troy would depart and leave the young lovers to their own devices. After the breakup Ally would still bump into Troy every now and then since they lived in the same general area, but she either avoided him or refused to talk to him altogether. “Did she look okay?” Danielle‟s voice was now officially a whisper. “Like an angel – a demon‟s angel.” “Troy.” “What? Woman looked like she was the unhappiest specimen in the world. Not that it takes much work for you women to look like that.” Danielle considered the tray of burnt cookies on the counter as Troy went on about the bitter countenance of her ex-girlfriend. While she had no intention of ever trying to communicate with Ally again – after all, she was the one left all alone on the curb – her sentimental feelings were still trying to get over themselves before Danielle could truly move on from one of the most influential relationships of her life. She figured that this was the main reason why she could never get to a second date let alone second base with any of the people she dated in past year, as doomed as most of the pairings were to begin with since Troy was the overzealous mastermind behind most of them. “Sucks for her, then. Maybe she‟s failing school or something.” Troy opened his mouth to make a testy rebuttal, but was interrupted before he could even begin by a rude knocking on the front door over to their right. After a quick, second round of knocking, Danielle abandoned her post at the counter and rounded her way through the living area and to the door. “Hang on a second!” she called, slamming her hand upon the handle and swinging the door open to expose her caller. Out in the hallway stood Devon, his blue eyes the size of satellites at the suddenness of Danielle‟s answering. “Uh, hi,” he mumbled, holding his hand up in a half-effort greeting. Danielle could hardly contain herself at the shock of seeing him standing on the other side of her door. “What the hell are you doing here?” she hissed, closing the door behind her until Troy could no longer see who was calling on his friend. “And how did you find out where I live? Are you stalking me now?” “What? No!” Devon took a step back as Danielle loomed over him. He didn‟t realize until now that she was at least a couple of inches taller than he was. “Your address is in the phone book, you know. And the directory downstairs says who lives where!” “Oh, god damnit, get in here.” Danielle clasped him by the braceleted-wrist and pulled him into her apartment, his body flopping around like a rag doll as he tried to withstand her brutish strength. Troy was observing this correspondence from the kitchen. “Oh, what‟s this, now? Got yourself a new friend there?” “More like an annoying acquaintance,” she mumbled, and Devon shirked her hold on him off. “Oh? New boyfriend? Have you abandoned the ladies already and decided to give men another shot?” There was a hardened twinkle in Troy‟s eye that Danielle could see clear across the room. “Huh? But I thought you were…” “Let‟s not talk about me, shall we? What is with you two being obsessed with who and what I sleep with?” “We‟re men. I may be gay but for some reason I want to make your vagina‟s business my business as well.” “Then become my gynecologist, for fuck‟s sake. You‟re both ridiculous.” “Who is this new friend of yours, anyway? He looks like he‟s about to keel over from me mentioning your vagina.” Devon blinked his eyes and snapped his head slightly back into attention. “Uh, I‟m Devon. I don‟t believe we‟ve met before.” “Quite true, I‟m thinking. Where the hell did you meet this guy?” Danielle sighed and abandoned Devon in the living area, making her way back to the kitchen where Troy stood with his arms leaning against the counter. “Remember that meeting I blew you off for last night? Yeah, he was there. That‟s all you really need to know.” From his standpoint Troy could only purse his lips and make a whistling sound at Danielle‟s firm tone. “Is that so? Well, I see how it is, then. Hey, kid, want a cookie?” Troy held up one of Danielle‟s burnt specials. “Uh, no thanks.” Devon wondered who could have possibly made such a hideous and unappetizing looking cookie – it appeared as if the blackened edges were about to deteriorate at any second. He then subsequently wondered why everyone was so intent on calling him „kid‟ lately. At twenty-two he sort of hoped that such a name could be put behind him, but even his graduating status, let alone his age did not seem to deter his older peers from constantly reminding him of their few-year age difference. “Danielle, can I talk to you…in private?” “Oh, my god, he‟s pregnant. Danielle, did you knock him up?” “Shut up, Troy,” and Danielle sent him a cursory glance to reiterate her point. “Could you leave us alone for a couple of seconds?” “Yeah, sure, why not, I have to go to the bathroom anyway.” As they waited for Troy to leave them in private, Devon checked his watch and began hopping up and down in his spot, causing Danielle to sigh and wonder what was with all his fussing. “All right, he‟s gone, what the fuck do you want? I‟m trying to enjoy a nice Sunday afternoon, you know.” “I know, I know, and you‟re going to think I‟m nuts, but…” and Devon bit his bottom lip in anxiousness. “I already think you‟re nuts for tracking down where I live, you stalker.” “…But I think I found…I think I found one of those Points.” Danielle‟s next impending words were thrown back down her throat and into the pit of her stomach once she heard what Devon whispered. It took her a few seconds before she could lift a finger in confusion. “Wait…what? Are you…are you sure?” Both of their voices dropped to a whisper by this time, Devon‟s particularly and sheepishly dim. “I think so. I was reading the paper this morning and I came across a picture of that philanthropist woman who donates all her jewelry to various charities. Do you have a copy?” “Sunday paper? Yeah, it‟s on the coffee table there.” Danielle pointed to the low, glass table between her couch and the television. Although the various sections of the paper were strewn about as if it were thoroughly read, Danielle only got through the front page before Troy showed up with a bag of chocolate chips in his hand. “What section? Living?” “Yeah. The C section.” Danielle shuffled through the papers before picking up the page with the colored picture of an older woman with short, gray hair and a blue long-sleeved blouse. Her smile towards the camera was blinded by the vast amounts of diamonds adorning her hands and neck. “This is it, I take it. What makes you think this is relevant?” “Hold your wrist up to the picture.” After some maneuvering to get the paper folded and beneath her right arm, Danielle placed her wrist upon the picture and waited. Within seconds she felt the skin beneath the golden bracelet begin to heat up and expel a strange odor that could only be associated with a certain organ on the verge of burning. “You have got to be shittin‟ me.” “Yeah, I‟m pretty sure the skin beneath this bracelet stuck on me is nice and black.” Devon pulled the paper out of her hands and looked at it himself. “It says her name is Helen Frederick, and she‟s showcasing some of her jewelry at a gallery downtown today only. Do you think we should go?” At first Danielle‟s response was a harsh, “Are you out of your mind?” but reconsidered once she thought of the pain resonating through her hand. “I…I don‟t know. I‟m still not quite sure what the fuck to think about all of this.” “Well, it shouldn‟t hurt. According to this article the gallery is free until seven…I mean, hell, even I can afford „free‟.” Danielle opened her mouth to respond but was interrupted when Troy emerged from the back room, flipping his cell phone shut and grabbing his jacket from the back of the couch where he left it earlier. “I‟m sorry to run out on you, Danny-Lynn, but I just got a call from my mother and she says my sister‟s in the hospital again from a severe asthma attack. I‟ll call you later.” He darted out of the apartment, a dark blur against the bright room behind him. “Wow, sounds serious. I hope his sister is all right.” Devon put the paper back on the table. “She‟ll be fine – it happens every couple of months or so.” Danielle abandoned the living area and shot up to the kitchen, pulling cooking trays onto the counter that were on the verge of falling off and creating a horrid mess on the floor. “If you want to go, we can take my car. Is that okay?” “It has to be – I don‟t even have a license.” From the kitchen Danielle stopped cleaning and shot him an uncertain look. “Seriously? How the hell did you get here, then?” He shrugged. “Walked.” “Okay then.” Danielle reached over and grabbed her own jacket from a stool and wedged her body into it, the black fabric covering her white tank top for a more appropriate look for public. She then grabbed her car keys and lead Devon out into the main hallway. When she was sure the front door was locked behind her, Danielle marched towards the elevator without regard for if Devon was behind her or not. For a Sunday afternoon traffic was not as coarse as Devon would imagine it to be. Somehow Danielle managed to weave her way between the other cars and advance down the roadways without too much trouble or random, rude fingers from other drivers. “I hate driving on Sundays,” she mumbled. “People act like asshats, especially after church gets out.” Devon glanced out the paneled window on the passenger side and sighed. Even though it was still early May, the temperature outside was rising as typical for the time of year, forcing Danielle to reach over and turn on the air vent before the humidity began to creep into her car. Devon was impressed how quickly the cool air overpowered the old and stale warm air, something he wouldn‟t expect less from in a newer, more sophisticated car like Danielle‟s little black compact. It was oddly stylish for a woman of her disposition, and a type of car that Devon was not all used to growing up. The only cars he knew were second-hand rip-offs that leaked oil and rusted the more they traveled down the road – they didn‟t tend to have smooth leather seats and a surround sound stereo system. Maybe joining the military and gaining their salary wasn‟t such a bad idea after all. “Yeah, I don‟t have all that much experience driving, I guess, but Sunday is the worst. Last time I took my driving test was on a Friday, and all the angry mobs were out buzzing around. One cut me off at a red light, freaked out the instructor, and I got an automatic fail.” His voice reiterated his driving frustrations by grating on the cool air inside the car. “Failed, huh? That‟s unfortunate.” Danielle did not relay her own experiences to him, somewhat to his relief. Devon found through the years that most people seemed to pass their driving tests on their first try, leaving him to feel rather glum about his misfortunes behind the wheel. As they fell into silence again Devon remembered that he had to call Alicia and let her know that he probably would not be home for dinner that night. He reached into his back pocket and pulled out his black cell phone, his fingers racing over the touch-pad to the melodic hum of the digits leading to his girlfriend‟s cell phone, wherever she was. He had to wait five whole rings before he received any response. From behind the wheel Danielle tried not to eavesdrop on his conversation, but could not help but hear his side. “Hey…hey is it…? Okay. Yeah, I won‟t be home until later this evening, go ahead and have dinner without me. If I get back earlier I‟ll just pick something up for myself.” A pause. “Something came up that I have to go take care of…for school. Yes, school. Do you want me to graduate or not? Yes, I‟m in a car. It‟s Clyde‟s car. Yes, I‟ll be home tonight. Okay? Okay. See you later, then, love you, bye.” “School, huh?” “Well,” and Devon put the phone away, “I couldn‟t exactly tell her the truth, now could I?” “I‟m somewhat surprised you haven‟t told her about all of this, actually.” Danielle put her foot on the brake as they approached a red light. They were getting closer to the downtown gallery that boasted the event they were looking to attend, but a whole stretch of road still separated them from the intended destination . “If I had somebody I would‟ve probably told them.” Devon turned his head and looked at Danielle squarely on the side of her blonde head. “Are you insinuating that you believe all this now?” “Maybe. I‟m still a bit skeptical.” “Ah.” Devon turned his attention back to the window beside him. “Anyway, no, I haven‟t told her. I figure she‟s got enough to worry about. And besides…I somewhat doubt that she would believe me.” “Wow, that sucks. Your relationship that bad?” “Hey!” “What?” Danielle lurched them forward again as the light turned green. “Don‟t you think she should be willing to believe you?” “Well, I guess.” Danielle withheld a laugh as she reflected on Devon‟s small dilemma. Had it been a year before one of the first things she would have done was told Ally what was going on – to an extent. At first she probably would have recalled something like a strange dream with the gradual ascension into the realization that something truly great was going on. But, on second thought, Marlow had said something about trying to keep the knowledge out of other people‟s minds lest their unknown adversary discover their identities. “Fuck,” she sighed, and Devon turned his sight back on her, “I just realized I made a wrong turn a few blocks back.” Her mumblings were nearly incoherent as she cursed to herself. The car swerved into an empty parking lot as Danielle tried to reorient herself as to where she was at in the throes of downtown life. For a moment she thought about turning back entirely until Devon said, “I think somebody‟s watching us.” On the other end of the parking lot sat another black car, although this one was slightly longer and older than the one Danielle owned. Inside sat two dark figures, their clothing as black as the car and their faces each shielded by a pair of sunglasses. When the figures realized that Devon and Danielle were staring at them the car started up, and the two voyeurs pulled hastily out of the otherwise empty parking lot. “What the fuck was that about,” Danielle thought out loud, although in the pit of her stomach she figured she knew that whoever they were, those two people were anything but innocent bystanders. “They creep me out.” “You and me both, then. C‟mon, let‟s get going.” Danielle pulled out in the same fashion that their watchers had, the car bouncing over the small hill that spilled back out into the road. Now armed with an adequate idea of where she was heading, Danielle lead the car onto a different road, her nerves shaking a bit uncontrollably as she thought back to the two stoic figures sitting in a dark car in an empty parking lot. After a few more minutes of driving around aimlessly downtown, Devon spotted the building hosting the gallery and motioned for Danielle to find a parking spot. She drove around until she saw an empty spot in the parallel parking area next to a meter. Once it was established that there was enough change between them, Danielle went ahead and parked between a white compact and a red Ferrari – Devon decided to spend the whole time staring at the Ferrari. “Why don‟t you stay here while I stake out the entrance?” Devon then slipped out of his seat belt and opened the passenger side door. “I‟ll be back in a few minutes.” Not one to argue with him at the present, Danielle watched as Devon stepped out and shut the door behind him. He instantly became lost in the throng of pedestrians that flanked the sidewalk, some stopping to stare at gallery advertisements while others wandered by without any care for art at all. Before Danielle could think to join him, she heard the distinct, choral tune of a MIDI blasting inside her car. She glanced at the seat beside her and saw that Devon‟s phone had fallen out of his pocket and now sat on the seat. At first she tried to ignore it, but either Devon was daft at setting up voice mail or the caller was that determined to get through, for the phone continued to ring and ring even after a good, solid ten rings. Danielle yawned and picked up the phone, more annoyed by the monotonous tune than anything else. Luckily his phone was a similar model to hers so she could easily flip it open and turn on the talk button. “Hello?” Her voice was as straight and normal as could be for answering somebody else‟s phone. There was a pregnant pause before a decisive click sang into Danielle‟s ear. “Oh you stupid bastard!” She pulled the phone away and stared at the number on the screen. All it told was a number sequence headlined with “The Girlfriend”. “Oh, shit, she‟s not going to like that.” At that moment Devon returned, his face contorting into confusion when he saw his cell phone in Danielle‟s hand. After he opened the passenger side door he asked, “What are you doing with my phone?” A cheesy, innocent smile bloomed on Danielle‟s round face. “ Uh…it…rang. It was your girlfriend?” “And uh…what did she say?” “She hung up the moment she heard my darling, feminine voice.” Devon collapsed into the seat, his complexion whitening as scenarios, all rather serious and resulting in him being verbally – and possibly physically – castrated racing through his mind. “Oh…shit.” “Hey, that‟s what I said!” “God damnit, she‟s going to kill me. She probably thinks I‟m coming home late because I‟m boning some other chick.” “Some hot, lesbian chick.” “That makes no sense!” “Calm down.” Danielle released her hands from the steering wheel and waved one in his direction. “I‟ve been through something like this before.” Devon‟s eyes lit up in brief hope. “You have?” “Yes.” And Devon could sense her discomfort from the other side of the car as she slightly squirmed in her seat. “In my last relationship my girlfriend gave me a cell phone for my birthday, and…well a woman from work and I were working out during our lunch break which entailed a lot of short breaths and general locker room frivolity, right? Naturally girlfriend calls me, and me being a total electronic newbie my coworker ends up answering the phone for me. She‟s extremely out of breath and it just so happens that her sneezes sound like orgasms. Guess who was allergic to my deodorant.” “Wait…her sneezes sounded like orgasms?” “Anyway,” Danielle thrust her hand in his face again, “the point is that when I got home that day expecting the inevitable, my girlfriend had let herself into my apartment unable to wait to get her murderous hands on me. It took a while, but by the end of the night I was finally in her good graces again.” Devon didn‟t doubt that she was expecting a rather immediate response, but he was too busy imagining a sneeze that sounded like an orgasm to be bothered to even think straight. “Well…I‟m…anyway, I‟ll just take that.” He reached over and plucked the cell phone out of Danielle‟s hand. “What‟s going on inside?” “Oh, um, just a bunch of hobnobs prancing around a bunch of jewels.” “Did what‟s-it-called go off?” “You mean this?” He lifted up his right wrist. “No.” Danielle pursed her lips and withdrew the section of the paper advertising the display out of the compartment between the two front seats. She unfolded it and stared at the picture of Mrs. Frederick, the bracelet automatically activating when coming into close contact with the picture. “Well, it‟s gotta be…shit!” “What?!” “You know, what this woman‟s wearing in this picture doesn‟t necessarily mean all of it is going to be on display. It‟s possible that one of the jewels we‟re looking for is still part of her personal collection and not in that gallery!” “But which one?” Danielle sighed in resignation. “We‟re going to have to go in there and find out.” “Or not.” “Huh?” Devon snatched the paper out of Danielle‟s hands and placed it on his lap. From his back pocket, the same one that housed his cell phone, he pulled out a pocketknife and began carving out the individual pieces of jewelry from the picture. “Here, you do half, and I‟ll do half. Woman has got a lot of shinies on her, so it‟s going to take both of us.” With a begrudging twist of the hand Danielle took her share of the jewelry and placed them on the dashboard. In silence the two of them took each individual piece and held it against their wrists, waiting for the one that would make their skin feel like it was about to start boiling at any time. “Got it,” Danielle announced, and held up a tiny picture of the wedding ring on Mrs. Frederick‟s hand. “Of course, it has to be the wedding ring, the one thing that she‟d probably never let go of.” “In that case maybe we don‟t have to worry about it, then,” Devon figured. “I think she‟s a widow, right? If she‟s still wearing her wedding ring then that insinuates that she‟s very attached to it. T here‟s no way she‟ll give it up, to either us or…or whoever else is after it.” “Are you suggesting we just forget about it for now?” Devon shrugged his shoulders. “I think this one would be a bit out of our league. If anything I think we should just come back to it la…” “Devon.” “What?” Danielle suddenly sat straight up in her seat, her hazel eyes staring out the front window at a black shadow before the car. “It‟s them.” “Who?” “Those creeps who were following us earlier.” Devon shot his sight out the window, where it landed upon the larger black car occupied by the two, motionless zombie-like figures, with their shielded eyes and expressionless faces. “Okay, I‟m starting to think they‟re stalking us.” “Who the fuck are they?” “We should go over and say hello.” “I…have a bad feeling about that.” The figures noticed that they were being watched and subsequently started up the car and drove away. The last thing that either Devon or Danielle saw was brand new tags with no real way of identifying them. “God damn. What if…what if they‟re working for that other guy that the old guy was talking about? You know…what if they‟re mercenaries, like us?” “I can‟t take this shit right now.” Danielle leaned forward and started her car, the engine as soft as a cat‟s purr that made Devon wonder if it really started at all. “We‟re going back. I still need to think about this. I‟ll…I‟ll drop you off where you live.” “All right.” Devon found himself unable to make eye contact with her. “Thanks. I‟m…I appreciate it.” “Yeah, well…” Danielle did not finish her thought. She merely pulled out of her parking spot and entered the fray of the traffic, making a point to go in the opposite direction of the car that had been following them. Inside an abandoned factory on the outskirts of the city dwelled not much more than rats and lice. But beneath the heavy machinery and cobwebs that decorated them resided a small, broken clock that appeared as if it once belonged inside the office of an executive: its mahogany build once glistened in light, its ticks once graced the ears of those sitting around it, and the numbers were hand carved. However, it did not belong in the factory at all, having been deposited there a few months earlier by an unknown hand that broke into the factory under the cover of darkness. There was another world inside the clock, as clocks did seem to contain so many strange mysteries in them as of late. Upon touching the clock the body would be transported to a strange, dark place reminiscent of a damp entrance to a haunted house. The only source of light came from the face of the clock, where, unlike on the outside, a pendulum swung lazily back and forth in a hypnotic fashion. “Are you sure you think it was them?” Dunsman shuffled across the hardwood floor of the inside of the clock, his attention being paid towards the impatient, pacing figure of Icha along the far side of the wall. The android flashed the edge of her sunglasses towards her master. “Are you saying we are too stupid to recognize some feeble humans? We don‟t just follow any tail that crosses the path.” Her voice chip was still heavily accented as if English was not her originally programmed language. Dunsman made a mental note to beat the robot maker senseless at a later date for this annoyance. “I‟m saying that I sent you out for one day and you come back to tell me such good news…but without any proof. And now you want permission to go out and kill some random people? If it‟s not them, then you‟re just creating senseless attention.” Icha laid her arms akimbo and approached Dunsman, the weight of her body passing through her shoes and clunking as she walked. “Their movements and other actions have the suggestion that they are of the mercenaries. If you want to wait for your intelligence to come through, then don‟t let us halt you, but we‟re not responsible for them reaching a Point before us.” From next to the pendulum Nia moved for the first time, her taller, thinner body shrouded by the shadows cast by the face of the clock. She opened her mouth to say something, but closed it again, much to Dunsman‟s chagrin. Nia was not mute, but for some reason she had been programmed to not say much. Icha, on the other hand, had a problem with learning to shut up. “I will wait for my intelligence.” Dunsman pulled out his own cell phone, a brand new model he picked up while in Japan – although it was not suited for working with American towers, he managed to finagle it until it transferred receptions correctly. He mashed on the buttons while Icha continued her impatient pacing. “Hello?” “This is Dunsman.” The other line fell silent for a moment. “Good evening.” “Have you learned anything yet for me?” “No, sir. I spent a greater part of the day doing research, but tomorrow I may not have as much time. I apologize for the inconvenience.” “Don‟t worry about it. We think the mercenaries may have started moving. That means Marlow is here and watching for me. We must maintain as much discrepancy as possible.” “Oh, I know all about discrepancy. Leave it to me.” The other line suddenly cut off. “Well?” Icha threw her arms down to her side. Her short, dark hair looked like a mound of shadow upon her head. Dunsman shook his head. “We may still have to wait a couple more days.” Although she had no eyes, and sunglasses obscured her face anyway, Icha still managed to expel a degree of non-tranquility around her that made even Dunsman nervous – normally he would have no problems with his hired help on whatever planet he was targeting, but for some reason Icha‟s insubordination made him feel like he had to pay attention to every move she made. Nia, on the other hand, spent so much time idly standing next to the pendulum that Dunsman often forgot she even existed. For only having the androids in his possession for so little time, he certainly knew almost every one of their tics to the point that he knew exactly what Icha was going to do down to the very last decibel. She screamed, her voice shrieking to such a high degree that Dunsman dropped his cane and slapped his hands over his ears in fear of them popping under Icha‟s direction. “Stop that hideous noise!” His voice could barely penetrate the air of the android‟s odd outburst. And just as quickly it started, Icha closed her mouth and pulled the sunglasses off her face. The empty space where her eyes should have been did not deter Dunsman from shooting his sight right onto the olive-colored skin blanks. “I should hope that our uses will be employed soon, Master.” Her voice grated from overstraining her voice chip only seconds before. “It would be a shame for you to have spent so much money on us only for us to sit here and rust.” “Surely Yamamoto‟s humor programs were put into good use on you.” Dunsman‟s voice in turn was laced in sarcasm. Icha smiled and replaced the glasses on her face. “I‟m going to go shut down for a while, Master. I‟m sure Nia will be coming with the me.” She turned and disappeared into the shadows, and like the noble clockwork Nia abandoned her post next to the pendulum and followed her sister into the depths of the clock. Although Dunsman had not ordered either one of them to shut down, there they went, on their own, to go to sleep for the rest of the night. He wondered who was really controlling who, and took a certain pleasure from it – he always did enjoy a challenge. Devon arrived home a little bit after four, his mind clouding as he tried to figure out how he was going to get past Alicia‟s arsenal of accusing words and possible outburst of uncontrolled, girlfriend-who-is-being-cheated-on violence. As Danielle pulled back out onto the road and made her own way home, Devon withdrew his keys and shuffled towards the main building door. In the five minutes it took him to ascend the staircases to his floor, all possible scenarios had already filed past through his mind, and the more he thought about them, the more he knew that it was helpless and that Alicia would probably have all of his belongings thrown out in the hallway. However, the hall remained empty, and the door was not latched shut, allowing Devon full entrance into the apartment. It almost appeared at first that there was nobody there. Devon scratched at his eyes and closed the door behind him. Normally when Alicia was home the TV was on the news or some other “intelligent” broadcasting, but that evening the whole living room was quiet, as well as the lights being off in there and in the kitchen. He wondered if Alicia was even home. Maybe she had already left with all of her things. In a twist of strangeness the back bedroom door was left ajar, and from the hallway Devon knew he heard the sound of somebody flipping through pages of a book. His body froze. Well, he mused, it was now or never. He entered the bedroom, revealing Alicia sitting on the bed, her back towards the wall and her legs drawn up against her chest. In her lap she held a journal-sized book with thick pages that snapped every time she turned a single page. At first she did not notice her partner, until he pushed the door all the way open and left himself free to her oncoming words of fury. But Alicia did not react in the manner that he expected. Instead she gazed at him with hallow eyes, her pupils the size of dimes, insinuating that she had not left the dark hovel of a bedroom the whole afternoon. Devon was hesitant to address her but finally said, “Alicia? I can explain about earlier…” “About what?” Her voice was a whisper. “About…the phone.” “Oh.” Even though it was dark inside their room, Devon could still see Alicia‟s fair face turn even paler. She opened her mouth but discovered that it was too dry for speaking. “Don‟t worry about it. I know it was probably just somebody you were with answering for you.” Devon was speechless as well, but for an entirely different reason. “Really? I mean…thank God. I just knew you would assume the worst.” Alicia did not answer, not even giving Devon a lecture about trust and how much she truly trusted him. Her eyes remained focused on the journal in her lap, causing Devon to approach her with the heaviness of a doctor going to tell a patient that he was dying. “What are you looking at?” He feared that she would be offended at his prying, but he did not recognize the journal and his curiosity was biting at him furiously inside his nerves. “This? It‟s…from a long time ago. Sort of from another life.” She closed the journal and let it sit on her lap. By now Devon had reached the edge of the bed and sat next to her, his heart feeling heavier with each passing second of secrecy. With a serene complexion falling upon his girlfriend‟s face, he thought back to Danielle‟s suggestion of telling her all about Marlow, the Points, and everything between that he knew of. She had a right, he figured, to know what he was doing. But he loved her, and his love dictated that she would be better off not knowing, not worrying, not trying to understand what he was saying and possibly believing that there was something wrong with him. Instead he lifted his hand and placed it upon her smooth face, her short, black hair falling across his fingers as he touched her. He hoped that it would be a moment of innocence and frivolity, but within moments Alicia broke down into a sobbing mess, her tears streaming down her face, dampening her hair and Devon‟s fingers as he stared at her in disbelief and fear. Her eyes contorting and her voice moaning, Alicia cast aside her journal and thrust her head towards Devon‟s chest. Her fingers pulled at his shirt and her tears stained it a darker shade. Devon felt like he was living in some alternate universe. The last time he ever saw Alicia cry was when they first met, her body curled up in the corner of a fraternity as she drank and sobbed away her last heartbreaking relationship. “Alicia! What‟s wrong?” Devon‟s voice frantically whispered into her ear through the strands of her black hair. “I…I can‟t…” She withdrew from his embrace and held her hand up to her bruising face. “I can‟t say. I don‟t really want to talk about it.” Her lips quivered with each passing word. “Please tell me, Alicia.” She was now no longer touching him, her body leaning on top of the bed away from him and her hair enshrouding her entire head. “My…do you remember when we first met, Devon?” “I…of course I do.” “I know. I was drunk. I was crying. I was stuck in a bathroom and my friend had to stop you, some stupid, innocent underclassman to help carry my sobbing ass downstairs so she could take me home. But you offered, you know. I may have been totally out of it, but I remember being amazed that some total stranger was willing to get me a ride home so my friend could caudle me and keep me from being totally sick from how much I drank.” Alicia turned her face back towards Devon. In the dark room only shadows managed to leave their mark upon her visage. “I remember thinking that I wish I could have been with a guy like you, somebody so patient and so…” she choked back another sob, unable to continue. “Alicia,” and Devon laid a gentle hand on her back. “What happened in your last relationship?” She stopped moving for a moment as she considered whether or not to tell him. There were a million words swarming through her mind, traveling through her head and waiting to be spoken through salty lips. But Alicia could not bring herself to tell him – to tell him the truth that she kept hidden inside her for so long, afraid to be reminded of it and humiliated by its contents. “It…it was an ugly end to an otherwise Eden-esque romance.” Devon blinked his eyes as he tried to translate Alicia‟s metaphor in his head – she was always the scholar compared to his mental laziness. “What happened? What made, and is still making you, so sad?” “I was an idiot.” Alicia shook her head, causing her hair to flip around until she was forced to push it back behind her ear. “Do you ever just wish you could be with somebody? I know this sounds so horrible, Devon, but even though we‟ve been together for so long and there would be absolutely no reconstructing my last relationship, I sometimes still wish that I could go back and relive those happier moments. I miss the feeling of being held like I was the most coveted jewel in the world, like everything began and ended with me for somebody else. I know this must make me sound so horrible and selfish, but it‟s the truth. I‟m still in love with somebody else. I always have been.” Devon refrained from touching her again. “I know, Alicia. I know. I‟m the rebound. You feel too sorry for me to break up with me.” “No, it‟s not that!” There was an anxious quality in her voice that Devon did not immediately recognize. “I do care for you very much, Devon. I know that you are the best man I could be with at this time in my life. But…” She held her hand to her face, mumbling her words as she continued. “But I feel like, everyday, I am only fooling myself. I am trying to be something that I am really not.” “And what‟s that?” “I…I wish I could tell you so much.” Her voice became more hallowed with each gasping breath. “I wish I could tell you everything, share every detail of my life, but I have been holding it in for so long that I just couldn‟t tonight. Please understand, Devon. Please forgive me, but I can‟t tell you everything right now.” “It‟s okay.” He reached out and embraced her again, her lithe body feeling even more fragile in his arms than it had in the year since they‟d known each other. The last time he held her like so was the night they first met, his arms wrapping around and supporting her as he helped her friend guide Alicia‟s drunk self down a flight of stairs and outdoors into the fresh air. “Thank you, Devon. I know, in the end, if I ever do tell you it will sound so petty and lame, but until then thank you for understanding my need to keep some things private.” She glanced at the journal she left strewn on the floor. “Please promise me you will never go looking for that.” “You should burn it if it causes you so much pain to reminisce.” Alicia smiled. “I can‟t do that yet, Devon. There is still too much in my heart holding on to those memories.” Although it pained him to do so, Devon pried his eyes off the journal and back onto his girlfriend‟s breaking face. “What about our memories, Alicia? Even though the odds are against us in saying that we probably won‟t be together for much longer – you know it and I know it – will the memories you have of being with me make you happy or indifferent?” Alicia wiped away the remaining tears from her face and took in a deep breath, one that racked her rib cage and shook the dark blue blouse that she wore across her frame. “These have not been bitter times. I‟m confident that if we should break up, it will not be as torturous as my last one.” “That‟s good, I guess.” “Thank you, Devon.” Alicia kissed him on the cheek, a move more platonic than anything else. But even though she had not intended for it to happen, Devon clutched her and forced their lips together, his desire to make her feel happier overriding his conscience in all matters relating to her other feelings. He waited for her to resist him, but was more than pleasantly surprised when she hugged him back and threw all of her remaining energy into a short-lived kiss between the two of them. “Holy shit, you‟re here already?” Danielle shoved the coffee pot back into its stand in the far corner of the break room. After rubbing her bloodshot eyes she looked at Troy as he entered and grabbed his self-labeled mug off the rack on the wall above the microwave. “I decided to get a jump on the week.” Her voice was low and sleep-laden. “Annnnd you sound like shit. Didn‟t you get any sleep last night?” Sighing, Danielle lifted her mug of coffee to her lips and inhaled it as if it were nectar and she were a bee. When she got home the evening before she had no idea that a sleepless night was in store ahead of her – she finally woke up earlier that morning with her head feeling heavier that a ton of bricks, almost as if she had a hangover. With a whole three hours of sleep under her belt she felt like she was liable to collapse from exhaustion at any moment. Troy rolled his eyes and gently shoved Danielle out of his way to the coffee pot. It was still a full ten minute before nine, so Danielle decided to sit down at the break table and hold her head in her hands as the minutes ticked by until it was time to go start work. “What‟s wrong, Sweetheart?” Troy‟s voice was laced in its usual saccharin. “Get in a fight with your lover?” “Troy,” and Danielle discovered that she didn‟t really have the strength to growl at him. The thought of blurting out her predicament amused her, but she decided against it and instead directed the conversation elsewhere. “I‟m thinking about getting a cat.” “A cat? If you want pussy you shouldn‟t bitch. It‟s not like I‟m not trying to help you out here.” “You know exactly what I mean. I get lonely in that apartment by myself. I want a black cat. And I‟ll name it Whitey.” Troy leaned back in his chair as they drank their bland coffee simultaneously. “Hmph, I knew you had a thing for us of the darker persuasion.” And he waited for Danielle‟s groan before continuing. “I know this girl…” “Troy, stop it. I‟m serious. Besides, you shouldn‟t be talking like that here. This room is probably bugged to hell and back.” “They can do that?” But his eyes were sparkling in mischievousness. “Of course they fucking can. It‟s the fucking government.” The clicking of heels in the near distance caused Danielle to nearly gag on the last of her coffee and Troy to curl his head over his shoulder. Before either one of them had the time to collect their thoughts Miranda entered, her heels louder than a rolling luggage bag traveling over concrete. “Oh, good, you‟re here,” she said, her brown eyes resting upon Danielle‟s figure. However, her manner was for once more professional than anything else. “Danielle, be in my office as soon as possible.” She turned and left. “Great,” Danielle mumbled, scooting back in her chair and getting up. She walked over to the sink and began rinsing out her mug. “Troy, do tell me that I was on time today.” “A whole ten fucking minutes.” “Then what the fuck does she want me for?” “For your hot bod.” “Besides that, you oversexed asshole.” “How the fuck would I know?” Danielle shook out her mug and hung it back up on its rack before facing the single door that led into the room. “Well might as well go before work starts. Then she can‟t bitch me out about that.” “Have fun. Call for help if you two start having sex.” “And you‟d come running with the camera, right?” There was a foolish grin spreading across Troy‟s face. “It‟d be the talk of this year‟s Christmas party!” Danielle waved her hand at him and left the break room. Her feet carried her past the rows of cubicles and the other various personnel arriving and filling their chairs with tired, aching bodies that chatted with neighbors about their lives and what they did that past weekend. Danielle couldn‟t even imagine being asked that question at that point in time – how would she ever explain Friday night let alone the entire weekend? The secretary was setting her things down next to her desk, her short, khaki skirt rising as she bent down to pull out various notebooks and writing utensils from her bag. For a brief moment Danielle took pleasure in the fact that she and her supervisor apparently shared the same taste in women, for she was certain that the only reason why this young woman was working for Miranda was because of the very body part sticking up in the air. Danielle cleared her throat. “Huh? Oh! Lieutenant!” The secretary stood and tugged at her skirt so it met her knees. “Did Miranda tell you to come by? She walked out of her office a couple of minutes ago mumbling about trying to find you.” “Yeah, she found me. She told me to stop by. Is it okay to go in?” The secretary cocked her head around and glanced at the tinted windows lining the captain‟s office. “Should be all right.” She straightened out the notebooks into separate piles and began pushing the clear button numerous times on the phone. “Thanks.” Danielle excused herself from the secretary‟s presence and approached the office door. She knocked loudly upon the lettering spelling out the captain‟s name, the sticky symbols scraping against her knuckles. Once she heard a disgruntled voice on the other side she opened the door and admitted herself into the office with the hopes that this would not be another embarrassing meeting for her. “You wanted to see me, Captain?” Miranda was in the process of opening and closing the doors on the file cabinets behind her desk when Danielle addressed her. She glanced over her shoulder twice before turning her body, her arms laden with manila folders packed to their full capacity with official, confidential papers. Danielle recognized the file cabinet as the one that held the profiles for all the members of the department. “Ah, yes, have a seat, Danielle. I need to discuss something with you.” The bland sincerity in Miranda‟s voice almost worried Danielle. She was so used to being flirted with that a cold, distant captain made her wonder what she had done to suddenly fall out of her favor. She almost desired to have the annoying captain back as opposed to the stoic one. “What is it?” Danielle reached out for one of the chairs in front of the captain‟s chair and sat down, her body sagging into the plush comfort of the chair usually reserved for those of a higher rank than her. A few seconds later Miranda joined her on the other side of the desk with a single folder in her hands. When Danielle slightly cocked her head she saw the name “CROMWELL, DANIELLE S. LT.” plastered across the top. She didn‟t like where this was going. “I‟ve noticed that you put in for this Friday afternoon off a while ago, Danielle. Mind telling me what‟s going on?” “I have an appointment at the clinic. It‟s the only time I can get in for my checkup.” Danielle sealed her lips shut after that. Although it was no secret to her close friends and family – and yes, boss – that she was still in remission from breast cancer for nearly six months now, she still felt that she was not required to talk about it on the whims of anyone else. It was bad enough that she was diagnosed barely four weeks after she was dumped and spent the next few months in and out of clinics and hospitals until she was declared to be in remission, Danielle did not also need “well meaning” individuals constantly prying into the status of her health. She considered herself lucky enough that she only had stage one Ductal Carcinoma In Situ and was able to put a stop to it before it could spread and possibly kill her. Danielle crossed her arms to silently further this point towards her boss. Miranda put the personnel folder on the bare desk and leaned in, her brown eyes slightly accentuated by a thin line of black mascara on her already tanned, olive skin. “Danielle, I am worried about you. You came back to work way too soon, and now you look like shit. I don‟t want anybody in my department suddenly collapsing because they were too stubborn to take their stipend pay from the government and stay home.” Danielle felt her shoulders tighten at her superior‟s taut words. “All of my doctor‟s said that it was okay to come back to a desk job. Hell, the one even said I could have the kinkiest sex imaginable and I‟d fare better physically than the president after the results of his last physical. I feel fine. I look like shit today because I got a whopping three hours of sleep last night.” From the other side of the desk Miranda leaned back again and allowed a comforting smile to cross her visage. In the light that snuck in from the window behind her, Miranda‟s hair looked like it had been recently dyed another dark shade of red that contrasted nicely against her skin. “I wouldn‟t doubt that for a moment with a woman of your caliber. Now, let‟s look at your file.” Danielle rolled her eyes at the slight come-on that Miranda managed to slip into her comment. Things were finally starting to be normal again. “What about my file?” Miranda opened the front of the folder and revealed a white, typed page filled with various charts and a large pair of photos, one of Danielle in her usual khaki-uniform and the other in her more formal garb reserved for opportune photographs. In both pictures her blonde hair was slightly longer, a style that Danielle suddenly found herself pining for again. Her current hairstyle was shorter than she normally liked it. “When you joined the department a couple of years ago your file was stamped with „Disabled‟, and as the „on record‟ reason for you being here.” The last sentiment was nearly spat out. “After the past few months you came up for review again in field work. Aren‟t you lucky that we forced you to get a physical just to have your eyes tested again?” “I‟m still blind as ever.” “But not dead.” “No, not yet. Put me in the field though and I‟ll be dead faster than a convoy on the side of the road.” Miranda laughed at Danielle‟s inappropriate joke. “Yes, well, obviously after your physical you remained „Disabled‟. Hell, half the department is labeled that. Not the most flattering of terms, but it beats death or a court martial.” “Keeps me from living in a barrack.” “And yet you still get to serve your country via a computer screen that‟s evaporating any eyesight you might have left in your right eye.” “I still don‟t understand what you‟re trying to get at.” From her seat Miranda flipped through the pages in Danielle‟s file until she found the section she was looking for. Although she did not wear glasses, Miranda still knelt her head in further and wiped an annoying tear away from the corner of her eyes so she could see better. Her finger ran underneath a certain sentence in the physical report. “Well, your name is up again for review – don‟t ask me why – and I was going through your file to see if you stood any chance of being kicked out of here. However, I noticed something odd about your mental history. It says here that when you were a little girl your family claimed that you were having strange visions. They were serious enough that they had you seeing a psychiatrist at age four?” Danielle did not flinch in her seat. “I was too young to remember any of that. But that‟s what I‟m told. Why? It has nothing to do with who I am now. Lots of little kids go through stuff like that.” “Well, the fact is that when the higher-ups who review this shit come to me for my opinion, I might have a chance of swaying them either way you desire. Should I use this as a reason to keep you here, or do you in your little heart desire to go get shot at in Baghdad?” Danielle stopped her mouth before it could drop open. Did her superior really want to help her? She scoffed silently in her mind – of course she did. From the first day Danielle walked into the department she was under the constant watch of her supervisor, a brash, dominant woman that screamed of the lady-loving persuasion even before half the department could confirm it. Once it became apparent that Captain Hotler was more than moderately attracted to the young Lieutenant Cromwell, Danielle spent most of her time evading and wondering if it would be worth the discharge to call her out on sexual harassment one day. So she found herself at a strange crossroads. It was odd that Miranda would be so willing to overlook a discrepancy in Danielle‟s past that could very well be used to convince the higher- ups not to let her in the field, but at the same time it would be a quick, easy reprieve from the every-day harassment she put up with. But even after all that contemplation the choice was painfully clear for Danielle. “Obviously I am not mentally fit for the field, either, Captain,” she began, her eyes closing as she addressed her supervisor. “Obviously I was so traumatized by what happened to me as a child that I‟ve completely blocked it out of my mind. It‟s like I have post-depression even before I got to Iraq.” Under her reddish bangs Miranda‟s complexion turned a slight darker shade of brown. “You don‟t want to go to Iraq anyway. It‟s dusty and it‟s…Lieutenant, is that a bracelet on your arm?” Danielle‟s eyes widened as she looked down at the golden bracelet stapled to her left wrist. “Er, yes, about that…” “You know damn well that there‟s no jewelry besides a watch, earring studs, and a two ring max. Take it off.” “I would love to, Captain, but you see…” Danielle turned her wrist over, displaying that there was no latch and that the bracelet was too small to pull over her wrist. It clung to her skin like elastic. “I‟ve tried everything to get it off before I came to work today, but I apparently fail at that.” “Well then how the fuck did you get it on?” “Uh…” “Never mind. Here.” Miranda opened up one of her desk drawers and withdrew a set of pliers she kept for quick mechanical fixes around the office. “Give me your hand.” Danielle placed the back of her hand on top of her supervisor‟s palm; she was surprised at just how soft Miranda‟s skin was. After a few seconds of trying to get the pliers situated correctly in her hands, Miranda placed the bottom tooth beneath the bracelet and squeezed the two sides together. Danielle slammed her eyes shut in case the bracelet came flying off towards her face. “God damnit, woman, what the hell is this thing made out of?” Miranda scooted back from her seat and stood up for better leverage. She placed her other hand on top of the pliers and used all of her torso strength to try and even leave a dent in the golden sheen of the bracelet. “Whatever it is, sell it to the government, because you could make tanks out of this shit!” She heaved out a deep breath as she dropped the pliers onto the desk and sat back down in her chair. Her palm was a deep crimson color from all the pressure obtained from trying to help her charge. “Er, thanks for trying, I guess.” “Just keep it covered with your watch until you can get it off. Try going to a jeweler or something.” “Yes, Ma‟am.” Danielle stayed solid in her seat as she waited to be dismissed by her captain. As she glanced at the clock on the wall she realized that work should‟ve started almost ten minutes earlier. “Shelley,” Miranda leaned in and spoke into the little black intercom on her desk. “Could you please come in here and bring your notebook with you?” “Coming, Ma‟am,” came an electronic voice from the desk before the office door. Danielle turned her head and saw a feminine shadow stand and move around before the tinted windows. On the other side of the desk sat an agitated captain – the file was still open and Miranda was staring at it with slanted eyes. “If you don‟t mind me saying so, Captain,” and Danielle allowed herself to slightly slouch in her seat and curve one leg over the other; she noticed her superior regard this posture with curiousity, “but you seem to be a bit on edge this morning. The Man getting you down?” Before Miranda could respond the door opened and the secretary entered with a small computer clenched between her fingers. In the olden days she would‟ve crossed the line with a pad and pencil, but since the military was even more advanced in technology than the richest conglomerate, the secretary was supplied with a sleek, metallic laptop used solely for note-taking and formulating memos – and, as Danielle recalled, one of the Captain‟s favorite pastimes was sending out memos. She watched as Shelly the secretary sat her notebook on top of the desk and popped the lid open, a multitude of blue lights coming to life as she bent over and typed the password into the appropriate box. “I am feeling a little…annoyed, today,” Miranda finally confirmed. “I just got a letter saying we‟re getting reviewed this Wednesday. I‟m about to send a memo to the department out.” “Reviewed?” Danielle uncrossed her legs. Miranda shot her a glance filled with confirmation. After a silent second she asked the secretary, “Shelly, I left my cabinet keys over on the table by the door. Since you‟re up could you grab them for me, please?” “Of course, Ma‟am.” As usual Shelley had a pleasant smile on her face, a structure framed by short, bobbed brunette hair and a freckled complexion. Under usual circumstances Danielle would not be incredibly attracted to her, but it had been so long since she was in any sort of relationship that glancing at Shelly seemed to be a special treat. Sadly for Danielle, Miranda did not intend for either of them to enjoy the gentle expression on the secretary‟s face, for her back was turned towards them the instant she went to search for the keys. “Here?” “They might have fallen into the bottom drawer opened there.” Shelley bent over without bending her knees, inadvertently hiking up her khaki skirt and revealing thighs as firm as running a desk job allowed her. Danielle had a feeling this was a common occurrence in Miranda‟s office, and therefore was content with sitting in a cubicle on a normal day on the other side of the floor, even if she always chose to wear the uniformed trousers over the skirt. Miranda stood from her desk once she decided she was finished staring at her secretary‟s assets, closing Danielle‟s personal file and turning towards the cabinet whose keys were in question. “You are dismissed, Lieutenant. If you don‟t see a memo on your desk by the time your lunch break is over today, stop by my office to make sure neither Shelley nor I have died or something.” “Certainly, Captain.” Danielle stood, her hand fumbling at her side while she debated to salute her oversexed superior or not. Once she decided Miranda was not worth it, especially when her back was turned to her, she exited the office, passing Shelley as the secretary returned to the desk to proclaim that she never found the keys. At a quarter after nine the entire office space was slightly hushed, with only the buzz of computers, the flurry of fingers over plastic, and the soft voices of those on guarded calls filled the void in the air. The first couple of hours were always the busiest, then lunches began and people found the lazy inside of them and turned the afternoon into either a covert nap or a sweet socialization time in the break room. Come Wednesday, however, they would all have to be in their pressedest uniforms, their starchest of caps, their most silent of voices and straightest – literally – that they could all possibly act. While not every person in the department was there because of their orientation, a good three-fourths of them were, and if any of the higher-ups suspected anything then a full investigation would commence, and come the next six months those three-fourths could be replaced by Iraq-sent rejects – all of whom spent their entire sexual lives preoccupied with only the opposite sex. Troy was not moving as quickly as his coworkers, but when Danielle passed it took him a few moments to realize that she returned from the Captain‟s office. Although a partition separated their sparse cubicles, he took off his headset and peered around the wall, watching as Danielle sat and set up her workspace for the day. “Psst. Danielle!” he hissed, his teeth a shining white against his dark lips. “What did Hottie want?” “My hot bod, just like you speculated.” Danielle secured the headset inside her ear and turned on her phone. “But she somehow managed to restrain herself from throwing me on her desk and ravaging said hot bod.” “Ha, the way you talk about it you almost sound like you‟d like that.” “I‟m starting to get to the point where even Hottie sounds good.” After some brief disentanglement from wires and pushing back his rolling chair, Troy rounded the partition and stood before Danielle‟s clean desk. “Then you‟d better tap that before her ass gets any older. She‟s got a good five years or so on you. It‟s the Asian genes that make her still look young – she‟ll get old overnight pretty soon.” “Please, I‟m not stupid.” Danielle never removed her eyes from her monitor as she logged into her desktop and opened her usual programs. A stack of manila folders sat in her wire basket next to her containing information waiting to be input into a government operated network. “Even if it was the most mind-blowing sex of my life it wouldn‟t make up for the fact that she‟s my superior and that‟d be the end of everything if it got out.” “Speaking of out, I hear we‟ve got a new recruit coming in soon.” “And I just heard we‟re getting a department review this Wednesday.” “Ah, fuck,” Troy mumbled, and leaned against the flimsy partition. “You mean I have to act like a macho vagina-penetrating man in two days?” “That would be it, my friend.” “James, back to work!” Even across the wide room they both could hear the captain‟s order loud and clear. “Shit, sounds like somebody else could use a good lay as well. Just take one for the team already and give her an early birthday present.” Troy wandered back around the partition, and Danielle heard him slouch back into his chair and start typing on his keyboard. She stifled a bitter laugh. Halfway through the morning and after half a cup of coffee and a short bathroom break, Danielle was in the process of switching between networks when the alert on her phone began blinking an obnoxious red shade. While receiving a call was not entirely unexpected, they were rather so few and far between that she always panicked for a moment that she would be unable to adequately process the call. She stopped and gathered her thoughts before allowing the call to go through to her headset. “Department of Data, this is Lieutenant Danielle Cromwell speaking.” Her voice was the most mechanized it ever was. Silence. She wondered if the caller had hung up or if she pushed the wrong button. Finally she heard, “Ah, yes, Miss Danielle. This is Marlow. I hope it‟s not totally rude of me to butt into your government‟s private line like this, but your cell phone is currently off and I must speak with you.” Danielle‟s heart was in the process of doing somersaults and strangling her lungs as she fought for words to shoot back into her headset. “Are you serious?” she whispered. “You can‟t just barge into a line like this! These calls are all monitored by the US Military!” “Oh, I‟m not worried. My technology is far superior to yours. Short of you blabbing about it I don‟t see why anybody would have to know about this conversation.” His voice, in a general contrast to Danielle‟s trained robot voice, was quite wistful and optimistic. Danielle imagined him sitting at his dark desk with Charlie rolling around at his feet. “I need you to stop by my place tonight. Sort of an impromptu meeting. From what I understand you and Devon may have found a you-know-what. I also have the intelligence to believe that Dunsman may be on to you.” “Oh, really? Would that explain our little stalkers yesterday?” “Uh, sure. Look, we need to keep this brief before you get into trouble with that nice lady-captain of yours. The way she acts around you I would hate to see what kind of creative punishments she comes up to put you through.” “You and me both, Pal. All right, I‟ll be there. Don‟t wait up.” And she closed the connection with a flick of her finger. She didn‟t have the greatest feeling about what was going on. Here she was, pretty much acknowledging that everything going on was real and probable. Given another week or so, and she‟d be willing to believe that her government was really keeping aliens locked up in a desert one state away.