Sarah Aisling’s Picture Choice: 2
Title: A Measure of Grace (Part 44): Back Me Up
Grace sits erect at the end of the bed, a continuous low rumble vibrating her chest. I sit up, pushing the covers off, and swing my legs over the side of the mattress. The soft glow of the alarm clock reads 4:42 am.
The pounding of feet and buzz of voices fade. The footsteps, coupled with Grace’s response, seem alarming, but the snatch of conversation I caught didn’t seem that urgent.
I pat Max’s side of the mattress, and it’s cold. He never returned.
My body is stiff and sore. Pain jolts along my spine as my feet touch the floor. I manage to shuffle over to the dresser and turn on the lamp. Grace jumps down and heads for the door, lowering her head to sniff along the bottom. She looks at me and whines softly, scratching at the wood.
“Okay, girl. Give me a second.” With difficulty, I pull my boots on, deciding to remain in the sweats and T-shirt I’m wearing. Max said it’s wise to be able to move at a moment’s notice, and this is a good example.
I make my way to the door and press my ear to the crack, straining to hear any sound. Nothing.
I open the door slowly. Grace pushes past me and trots up the hall. I poke my head out, find both directions deserted, and decide to trust her instincts. Grace sniffs along the floor and leads me to the elevator, looking up expectantly.
Taking an educated guess, I choose to head for the control room. The elevator hums to life, jerking slightly as it starts moving. When we come to a stop and the doors glide open, Grace hurries up the halls, hovering impatiently at each corner to wait for me.
Voices spill from the control room, overlapping each other. By the sound, everyone is there.
Grace rushes into the room, interrupting the conversation.
“What the—” Max pokes his head out the door, his blazing eyes pinning me. “What are you doing out of bed?”
“A better question is why everyone convened without me. I heard chaos in the hall by our room. What’s going on?”
Max shakes his head. “Nothing, really.”
“Didn’t sound like nothing.” I stalk toward him and wince internally, determined not to show how much pain I’m in.
Max catches me around the waist and pulls me against him, looking down at me with amused concern. “Hey, hey.” He brushes my hair back, warm fingers lingering on my cheek. “We decided to tell you in the morning.”
“We?” I lift a brow.
Max rolls his eyes. “Okay, I decided. And I stand by it.”
I shift my eyes to the left. Tek sits at the helm of the control panel, arm in a sling, with a smirking Ali perched on one thigh. Eric and Andrea lean on the table of manuals. Eric has an arm around Andrea, who looks comfortable in her own skin for the first time.
“Hey.” I smile sheepishly.
Ali’s smirk widens. “You know I’m the first one to razz Connor, but he’s right this time.”
“This time?” Max laughs, and his familiar, comforting scent washes over me.
My eyes slip closed for a moment to savor him.
Grace dances around us, nails a-click, begging for attention. Max releases me, holding my hand while he pets Grace with his other.
Tek rolls his eyes. “Now that Marie is here, why don’t we just fill her in? Then we can come up with a plan.”
Max’s eyes narrow, and he looks me over. “Are you feeling all right? If you’re in pain, we can do this later.”
I ignore his query about pain. “I want to know what’s going on.”
He nods to Tek. “Roll the footage.”
My heart beats faster, and I grasp Max’s hand tightly. “Please tell me it’s not . . . him again.”
I breathe out. “Thank God. Carry on, Tek.” My heart continues to drum against my ribs anyway.
Ali stands, and Tek turns the chair to face the bank of monitors. He lifts the lid of the laptop and brings up a video file. The rest of us crowd around to watch.
The scene is from the camera at the entrance to the plant nearest the mouth of the tunnel. A golden wash of sunlight accentuates rocks stained with flecks of blood from the fight between Tek and Gibbs. Deep shadows mask the entrance of the tunnel, but the echo of voices amplified by stone issues from inside.
I suck in a breath as the barrel of a rifle precedes a lone soldier. He leans forward cautiously, panning the area through the scope.
A group of Alliance soldiers morph out of the darkness, fanning to either side of the entrance. Two more rifle-toting men sporting earpieces emerge and step in front of the group, making room for another man.
The Vice President of the United States strides forward confidently, the barrel of a rifle resting casually against one shoulder. Unlike the rest of the men, who wear Alliance issued uniforms, Aaron Wesley looks ready for a fox hunt in a tailored coat and sturdy boots. He has a cap of close-cropped silver hair and keen blue eyes.
One of the men beside him salutes. “Sir?”
Vice President Wesley scans the area with narrowed eyes. “Axle and Pruit with me—the rest of you explore and report.”
The men salute and bark “Yes, sir!” in unison. Some of them spread out to explore the shallow grotto while others discover the trail curling along the side of the cliff.
The vice president waits until the rest of the men are out of earshot before speaking to the two who stayed behind. “We’re running out of time.” He pauses, looking skyward, and sighs deeply. “My nephew has gone rogue, off-grid. He hasn't reported in for the past two weeks, and his tracker stopped responding yesterday.”
“I thought he agreed to work with us.”
Wesley's expression is inscrutable. “He did, Pruit.”
Pruit nods slowly and eyes the vice president as if choosing his words carefully. “I see. Why are we here, sir?”
“Kyle's tracker quit transmitting in this general vicinity.”
A strange, indefinable feeling comes over me. Until this moment, I didn't know Gibbs' first name, and I'm not sure if the intimacy of knowing it makes me feel better or worse.
The third man, presumably Axle, tilts his head. “What are you thinking, sir?”
“Kyle either dug the tracker out and crushed it, or we're looking for a body.” Wesley's expression is grim, but it's unclear which scenario displeases him more.
Pruit weighs in. “My money's on electronics. The likelihood of the tracker dying with him is minimal, sir.”
“I agree, but something in here” —Wesley jams a fist against his solar plexus— “tells me different.”
“Should we inform the men?”
“No, let's continue to keep this between us.” Wesley looks toward the entrance to the plant, his gaze coming to rest on the camera. “What is this place? And find out if that camera is active.”
Pruit says, “This is the back door to the area power plant.”
Axle aims his rifle at the lens and peers through the scope. “It's a live infrared camera, sir.”
“Find whoever is in charge of power, and get me in there.”
Tek pauses the video. “The rest is inconsequential.”
A lump forms in my throat. “This isn't an emergency? When is this from?”
Max massages my shoulders. “They're not getting in here.” Before I can protest, he turns my face toward his gently. “And even if they do, we can keep them out of vital areas. This place is a maze. We have the benefit of diagrams, keys, and codes—they've got nothing.”
My stomach rolls unpleasantly, and as I gaze around the room, the rest of the group seems uneasy, too.
We don't have the luxury of waiting for the optimal time of day to meet with Garth, so Max has Eric get in touch to reschedule.
The sun is a muted yellow disc hovering in a sea of grayish white as Max leads me along a circuitous route to the house where Garth waits. The trip takes twenty-five minutes rather than the usual ten, because of both Max’s caution and my pain and stiffness.
The strap of a portable cooler rests on my shoulder; test tubes of Grace's blood lie nestled within. I insisted on carrying this most precious cargo, much to Max's annoyance. Somewhere deep inside, handing samples over to the Alliance feels like a betrayal of Grace, and I see it as my duty to see this through.
Max watches the house for several minutes, scoping the area with binoculars before signaling to Eric, who is concealed in a copse of trees with an advantageous view of the house and both main points of access.
We enter through the back door and find Garth pacing around the kitchen, looking as nervous as I've ever seen him. When I place the cooler in the middle of the table, he nods and relaxes a bit. He's still jittery, his body in perpetual motion, gaze shifting around the room. Garth is one of the calmest people I've ever met—his unflappable demeanor has often been an annoyance—so to see him this way is profoundly disturbing and increases my own anxiety.
Max strides over to the table to grab a chair, turns it around, and straddles it, resting his forearms across the top. His assessing gaze follows Garth for a few moments. “Have a seat, Doc.” His words are neutral with a commanding undertone.
I hover next to Max and place a hand on his broad shoulder, taking comfort in the strength of his presence.
Garth falters, sighs, takes a closer look at Max, and decides not to argue. He takes the chair directly across and sits with his folded hands resting on the table. “You brought the samples.”
A ripple of fear runs through me. “Yes, and you made promises—”
Garth holds a hand up. “That I intend to keep.” He caresses the side of the cooler, eyes gleaming. “If I'm right about this, we're extremely close to a cure.”
Max reaches up, the gentle pressure of his fingers joining mine on his shoulder. “Assuming you're right, have you thought about how to mass produce the cure? When's the last time you saw a healthy dog?”
“As far as I know, none have been sighted, but there's no point searching them out until I'm sure this will work. If my calculations are correct, one tube of canine blood will effect thirty to forty vaccines.”
“How many members of the Alliance need the cure?”
Garth seems to deflate. “Too many.”
Max nods calmly, but his stiffening fingers telegraph tension. “Remember our deal. If you betray us, I'll gut you without mercy before enacting Plan B.”
“What's Plan B?”
“Only I know, but trust me when I say the Alliance never wants to find out.”
Garth can't conceal his alarm but is quick to reassure us of his loyalty. Afterward, he stares into space for a few moments, an apparent war raging within. Finally, his eyes seek mine. “I shouldn't be telling you this, but my conscience won't allow me not to. The vice president is hand-picking a trusted team to break into the power plant.”
Flutters like a hummingbird's wings beat in my chest, my breath quickening.
Max hooks an arm around my waist, pulling me close. “How is it a research scientist is privy to military strategy?” A shadow of suspicion colors his tone.
“Nina is close with Dahlia Wesley. The two of them bonded over the many lonely hours women who are married to government officials and scientists often suffer through. Nina has become somewhat of a fixture in the Wesleys' quarters and overheard a heated conversation the vice president had with members of his staff. Apparently, the wall between the vice president's office and living room is thin, the acoustics ripe for the picking. Mrs. Wesley greatly enjoys martinis and listening to private discussions.” Garth coughs. “Anyway, Wes was raving quite loudly about trackers and a soldier gone rogue. The trail led him to the plant, and he was enraged to find out everyone thought some other department was in charge of our power. Obviously, he doesn't want that news getting around and seems to be promoting his own agenda as well. My guess is the rogue soldier he's referring to is Gibbs.”
“Any idea where Gibbs is?”
“Hell,” Max says simply.
If our situation weren't so dire, I'd find Garth's shock amusing, but all I can focus on is the fact that Alliance soldiers will soon seek entry into our no-longer-secret hideaway.
Garth's expression turns grim. “You should get your people out of there.”
“I'm working out a plan.”
“You don't have long.”
“I realize that.” Max rises abruptly but keeps his arm around me. He points at Garth. “Keep your part of the bargain.”
“And don't talk about any of this in front of your wife or her friends.”
Garth's dusky skin flushes. “I've been nothing but discreet so far, haven't I?” He stands and walks around the table to plant a kiss on my cheek. “Godspeed, Marie.”
I grasp his hand tightly. “Don't let Grace's blood go to waste.”
Max slips a walkie-talkie from his jacket and presses the button. “Are we clear?”
After several seconds, the speaker crackles to life. “Clear.”
“See you back there.” Max shakes hands with Garth. “Take care, Garth. I'm counting on you.” Though the words and gesture seem affable, an implied threat lies within.
The trip back is just as lengthy as our arrival. We move slowly through the woods, which gives me time to assess our surroundings. The trees, so recently draped in the mosaic of fall, stand naked, their bare arms reaching skyward. The path underfoot is carpeted with dead and dying leaves, ranging from mottled yellow to brittle brown and curled. A sense of sadness pervades my being, a feeling that visits at the beginning of each winter.
We don't speak on the way back. I follow Max's lead, stopping when he stops, moving when he moves, trying to ignore jolts of pain. Though I shudder as we step over Gibbs' grave, I don't try to talk Max out of taking the tunnel.
When we arrive, the kitchen table is set for lunch even though it’s only eleven. Ali brings a platter of sandwiches to the table and flits around, filling glasses and fussing with napkins.
“Tek is in the control room. Once Eric gets here, we can eat. Andrea’s taking a nap. Grace is watching over her.” Ali’s eyes are wide and concerned, but she doesn’t ask the questions that are clearly on her mind.
Max collapses into a chair with a grunt. “Beer, please.”
I sit next him and sip from the glass of water next to my plate.
Ali grabs a bottle from the fridge and hands it to Max. “I thought you might need a cold one today.”
Eric bounds into the room with a wide smile and a twinkle in his eye. “Brewskies? Don’t mind if I do!”
“What are you so joyful about?” Max twists the cap off the bottle and takes a long swig.
“Any day there’s no trouble is a good day. Am I right?”
“Who said there’s no trouble?”
Eric accepts a beer from Ali, draining half of it in several long pulls. He slams the bottle down on the table and smacks his lips. “Okay, hit me.”
“Let’s wait until everyone is here.”
Ali offers to fetch Tek and tasks Eric with waking Andrea from her nap.
When we’re alone, I look to Max. He stares straight ahead. I examine his profile, noting the set of his jaw.
He huffs moodily and lets a few seconds go by before answering. “You kidding? That Wesley asshole and his band of trusted goons is coming.” He takes another slug of beer and wipes his mouth with the back of his hand.
“We could leave for a while, hide out in one of the houses in town. Or maybe—”
“Stop.” The command is not said unkindly. He sighs, staring down at his lap, and grasps my hand. “China, do you trust me?”
“With my life.” I squeeze back, secure in the knowledge of how deep our trust goes.
“Then back me up.”
“What are you talking about?”
The kitchen door opens, admitting Andrea, Eric, and a happy, wiggly ball of fur.
Max tightens his hold and stares meaningfully into my eyes. “Back me up.”
I nod, and he lets go.
Grace jumps up and rests her paws on my thigh, licking my face. I scratch her behind the ears. A nervous Andrea says hello and takes a seat next to Eric. Tek and Ali come in a moment later, and then we’re all sitting, looking around the table, wondering what’s going on.
Max rubs both palms on his jeans and clears his throat. “We met with Garth this morning. He has samples of Grace’s blood for his research and has given us his word that no harm will come to her. For what it’s worth, I believe him. His wife—Marie’s mother—overheard the vice president planning to gather a few trusted men to break into the plant.” The others talk at once, gesturing and exclaiming, but Max raises his hands. “Please, I have a plan.”
“When do we leave?” Andrea asks.
“This is the safest place for us.”
Eric nods. “Yup. Better question is how do we keep them out?”
The room falls silent, and everyone looks to Max with differing degrees of shock.
“We’re going to let them in.”
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Sarah Aisling hails from the East Coast of the US and loves living by the ocean with her incredibly indulgent husband and precocious daughter. She’s currently editing her upcoming novel, The Weight of Roses. When Sarah isn’t being enslaved by her characters, she can be found with her nose in a book, obsessing over nail polish or anything leopard, biking, hiking, camping, and spending time with friends and family. Twitter: @SarahAisling Facebook