Sarah Aisling’s Picture Choice: 2
Title: A Measure of Grace (Part 47): Question of the Day
Wesley exits the alcove and stands directly under the camera. His cold blue eyes seem to stare into my soul. “This is far from over, Kyle. We had an understanding, you and I. Tomorrow, 1300 hours, just you and me.” He makes a V with two fingers, pointing first at his own eyes and then jabbing them at the camera. He speaks to his men without looking away. “Station two men in here and one outside. Have them taser anything that moves. No killing, especially if they come across Marie Merlo. She’s mine.”
A cold burning pulses through me, taking my breath with it. Ali and I look at each other, wide-eyed. For a long moment, we don't speak.
Wesley turns sharply and strides from view. Muttered conversation comes from the speakers, but the men are too far away for us to catch the words. I'm pretty sure Axle or Pruit mention my name at least once.
Ali fumbles to switch primary feeds. By the time she figures it out, Wesley and his entourage are gone.
My mind sifts through recent memories in an attempt to understand the chilling directive the vice president just uttered, and I come up empty. “Me? Why does he want me?” Fear prickles inside, reminiscent of being threatened by a grammar school bully for no apparent reason.
“Because he's an asshole, like his dead nephew!” Ali's sea-glass eyes glint with anger. “Bet you Gibbs told the vice something about you. Not saying what he told him is true, but you heard him—they had an understanding. We just don't know what it entailed.”
“You might be right.”
“I am. We have an advantage because Wesley thinks Gibbs is still alive.” She gnaws at her lower lip with a thoughtful expression. “It's obvious Gibbs was supposed to know where Wesley wanted to meet. Did you catch that?”
I shake my head and laugh shakily. “Too busy with the part about the men leaving me for him to deal with.”
“Don't tell my brother about that.” Ali looks back at me solemnly.
I can't hide my surprise. “Why?”
“Connor will lose his shit. He needs a clear head to navigate these waters.”
A niggling spark of fear flares inside me, burning low but strong. Max would vehemently disagree with Ali on this point, but I can't in good conscience put him in a position where he has to fight to choose logic over rage. I sigh heavily. “You're right.”
Ali grips my hand tightly. “This is for the best—you'll see.”
A cool nose nudges my free hand, followed by a sympathetic whine and a lick. Grace gazes up at me, her liquid brown eyes shining with the desire to comfort me. I scratch Grace behind the ears, and her eyes squint with contentment. She rests her head on my thigh, and I continue rubbing absently as Ali and I watch the feeds closely.
We huddle together, bent over the laptop for over an hour. Soldiers take their stations. The ones inside the plant quickly disappear from view, probably seeking a shadowy place to hide and watch.
Tek activates the secondary camera at the entrance to the plant, and Ali taps on the previously dark feed. The perspective is from the ground, angled up and across, the camera’s location somewhere to the left of the door, which can’t be seen until it opens. The view is obscured in a number of places by irregular twig-like shadows.
“Clever. The camera must be in the bush next to the door!”
Ali grins. “That’s my man.”
Almost as if Tek knows we’re discussing his handiwork, the walkie-talkie crackles to life. “Ali, the camera at the plant entrance is up. The sound’s not working for some reason, but we have a decent visual.”
“Got it. What about the guys?”
“Working on it. Max, do you copy?”
My heart beats faster, the seconds stretching to feel like minutes, but there is no response. Sensing the tension in the room, Grace lifts her head to look at me.
Tek tries again. “Guys?”
Ali fidgets on her seat. “Jay, what does this mean?”
“We wait. Maybe it’s not safe to answer right now . . .” An underlying or they can’t answer
echoes across the radio silence. “Max, check in when you can. I’ve been poring over the blueprints, and I should be able to guide you in.”
“What should we do?” Ali asks.
“Stay off the walkie as much as possible so we don’t kill their battery. Monitor the feeds as best you can while I keep at it with the blueprints—this place is complicated.”
Ali lays the walkie-talkie on the table and bows her dark head for a few long seconds, muttering under her breath. When she finishes what I assume is a prayer, we hug one another tightly. No words are necessary, our collective fear and hope telegraphed through the tense embrace.
Wesley and a band of men huddle by the entrance to the tunnel. There are more of them than before; he must have called for reinforcements. Though we have no audio, it’s clear by the set of his shoulders and sharp gestures that Wesley is barking instructions. Soldiers break off singly and in clusters, presumably following assignments. Two enter the darkness of the tunnel, three head toward the path that clings to the side of the cliffs, and two enter the plant—one guarding the door while the other enters Gibbs’ base camp and disappears behind the equipment. Lack of illumination from the bulb Max shattered earlier allows the soldier to easily conceal himself.
Wesley looks around, his expression cold. He speaks to Axle and Pruit—the only men still beside him—then strides into the tunnel, leaving the two of them behind. Axle and Pruit confer for a few minutes. Axle stations himself outside the plant door, and Pruit takes off in the direction of the cliff trail.
Ali reports in, letting Tek—and Max, if he’s listening—know the positions of the soldiers.
And then the long wait begins.
There’s no Alliance activity over the next hour; all the men are concealed in their assigned locations. The walkie-talkie remains silent.
Andrea shuffles into the kitchen, bleary-eyed and oblivious, yawning loudly. “Can’t believe I slept half the day away!” Her bloodshot eyes widen as she spies us hunched over the laptop. “Whats going on?”
Ali explains, and I watch Andrea slowly crumple as she realizes the predicament Eric is in. I understand how she feels. Until now, I’ve managed to control my rising panic, but seeing my fear mirrored on Andrea’s face causes it to bubble inside me.
Andrea rests both palms on the table, her gaunt face punctuated by dark crescents beneath each eye. “Where are they? Why aren’t they answering?”
I place a hand over hers. “Andrea, the three of us are in the same boat. We know Max and Eric were hiding on top of some pipes that run along the ceiling and that they had to go silent to avoid being detected. We haven’t heard from either of them for a few hours. The good news is we’ve been watching the feeds carefully, and there’s been no Alliance activity for quite a while. Tek is studying the plant blueprints so he can lead the guys back to safety.”
Ali joins in. “Yeah, we just need to sit tight, monitor the feeds, and wait for them to contact us. Why don’t you take my spot, and I’ll get you coffee and something to eat.” Ali pushes up from the table and stretches, working the stiffness from her body.
Andrea drops into the chair beside me, linking her fingers with mine. “They’re going to be okay. They have to be.”
The thought of anything else is unacceptable.
Two hours feel like ten. The three of us pace the kitchen, which isn't big enough for our level of restlessness, but none of us is willing to leave the room. We side-eye one another, perhaps wondering who will crack first.
There's been no movement from the Alliance. No word from Max or Eric.
When Tek strides into the kitchen, we all descend upon him and start talking at once. He backs up against the door, holding his good arm up. “Whoa!”
Grace scuttles out from under the table and joins the melee, wagging her tail madly.
“Have you found them?”
Tek holds up a roll of blueprints. “No, not sure, and no—but these will help when they get in contact.” He heads for the table we aren't using and spreads out the blueprints. There are multiple sheets filled with drawings and minuscule print.
Andrea gapes. “Oh dear God.”
Ali looks on silently, her forehead creased with concern.
I lean over the map of the power plant and attempt to make sense of what I'm seeing. “You understand this?”
Tek guffaws. “Not exactly. Why do you think I've spent the last few hours holed up alone? I've taken a ‛Blueprints For Dummies’ crash course, and I'm pretty sure I can guide Max and Eric home.”
Andrea hugs herself and shivers. “If we ever hear from them again.”
Ali offers up a Max-like glare. “We will. Maybe this didn't go exactly as planned, but it will work out.”
“I hope you're right.”
Tek snaps his fingers. “Hey, I want to show you something.” He places his index finger on a blueprint and follows a vertical path that cuts through multiple floors. “These are conduits where pipes and wires are housed. There are access points throughout the plant, used mainly for maintenance and repair. I believe I can lead them to us—the trick will be doing so without them being discovered.”
I stare at the network of conduits bisecting multiple floors. The way through looks long, complex, and tedious. “That looks narrow . . .”
“It's tight—I won’t lie—but there are metal rungs on the vertical sections. I know because I pried open one of the access points. I can show you.”
Ali remains behind to monitor the feeds. Andrea and I follow Tek into the hall with Grace at our heels.
Just outside our quarters, Tek yanks an already loosened grating off the wall, one-handed. Setting the metal plate on the floor, he digs a penlight out of this pocket and shines it inside. A snarl of cables and wires crowds the opening.
I gesture at the mass of wires. “How are they supposed to fit in there?”
Tek grins. “Oh, ye of little faith. Put your hands in the center here and spread them apart.”
Doing as he says, when I widen the narrow gap between the wires, a small tube-like structure is revealed. Rusted metal rungs line the back wall every foot or so. “Wow.”
Andrea presses closer, and I make room for her. She shudders. “I feel claustrophobic even from out here!”
Tek nods. “Yeah, not my first choice, but that's the only way they can get to us.”
The walkie-talkie strapped to Tek's belt emits a series of staticky bursts with a rhythmic hum in the background. “What the—” He hands me the penlight and grabs the walkie-talkie, listening carefully. A pattern develops, repeating over and over.
Ali's excited voice breaks in. “Connor? Is that you?”
More staticky hums come in answer.
“Oh my God—are you all right?”
I pull my hands from the nest of wires and whip around to face Tek. “We need to find out what the heck is going on!”
We race for the kitchen while Ali continues peppering the airwaves with questions. Ali paces the worn linoleum, her cheeks flushed, and holds up a finger to halt the inevitable questions.
“I'm a little rusty. Do it again.” She nods as the same pattern is repeated. “Okay, so you guys are okay, but it's not safe to talk . . . Okay, okay . . . Tek has figured out a way to guide you in using access conduits . . . Yes, all the way down.”
There's an extended silence.
Tek puts an arm around Ali. “What in the world?”
“Morse code. Learned it when we were split up in foster care. Connor had one walkie-talkie, and I had the other. Late at night, we'd send messages.” Her eyes glisten with tears. “It's coming back to me, all of it.”
I have the sense she's referring to far more than secret chats with her brother.
Max transmits more code.
“Tek will guide you. I'll translate.”
Tek brings the walkie-talkie to his mouth, looking thoughtful. “First, where are you guys?”
Ali listens. “Not far from where they were. Alliance men are close by . . . and their fucking muscles are cramping.” She offers up a tense smile.
Tek consults the blueprints, sliding his finger horizontally. “Okay, go deeper into the plant and hang your first left. Guesstimating you'll have to travel . . . about five hundred feet.”
Ali's smile widens. “You don't
want to know what he said that time.”
The painstaking process continues as Max transmits, Ali translates, and Tek provides directions. Andrea and I monitor the feeds and try to approximate where in the walls Max and Eric are so we can warn them of any Alliance soldiers.
Tek tells them to wait and spends a good while poring over the blueprints. He traces one path and then another before raking clawed fingers through his hair and uttering a string of expletives. He outlines the routes again and shakes his head. “You're not going to like this, but the only way I see this working is if you climb out through the grate just ahead, go to the right about . . . twenty yards . . . and enter the conduit on the left. That one leads straight down here. It's a long way to climb, but it looks like it can be done.”
My head and Andrea's snap up in unison.
“Are you crazy?” Andrea slaps her palm on the table. “You want to expose them? There are Alliance men on that floor!” She jabs a finger at the screen where we know Alliance soldiers hide in the shadows.
Tek looks miserable. He raises the walkie-talkie, lowers it, then raises it to his mouth again. “As Andrea just pointed out, there are Alliance soldiers on that floor. We saw them go in but have no idea where they might be lurking. This is risky, no doubt about it.”
Max's answer comes a minute later.
Ali translates, her expression a mix of exhilaration and fear. “Let's do this.”
“Let me get to the control room. Maybe I can give you a bit of auditory camouflage.” Tek tucks the blueprints under his injured arm and grabs Ali's arm, indicating she should come with him. “You two keep monitoring the feeds and signal if you see movement.”
Andrea grabs my hand, squeezing so tight it hurts. I squeeze back just as hard.
About ten minutes pass before Tek's voice comes from the walkie-talkie. “Popping that grate is going to make some noise. I want you to wait for a recording to start before you move. Get ready . . . one, two, three . . .”
A loud bleat sounds from a PA system I never noticed before. Sure enough, there's something resembling a bullhorn mounted in the corner of the kitchen. After two shorter bleats, a recording begins. “Attention. Attention. This is an emergency protocol drill. All techs report to your stations and initiate emergency protocols.
Andrea bounces on the chair. “Look! There they go!”
The grate falls to the floor. Max and Eric climb out and fit the vent back in place. Dirt and grime streaked by rivulets of sweat cake their skin. Their clothes are filthy, rumpled, and torn in places. They hurry to the right as Tek instructed.
The PA system squawks the message over again.
Max crouches, his fingers working fast to unscrew the rivets holding the vent on. This one is on hinges, and he lifts it, pressing his way through the snaking wires. Max's voice comes from the walkie-talkie. I think he said, “I'm in,” but it's difficult to make out his words with the PA system going.
“Oh, no!” Andrea's nails dig into my arm, and she reaches for the walkie-talkie with her other hand and presses the transmit button. “Someone's coming!”
Max's response is garbled. “What? Can't . . . you.”
“Get in! Someone's coming!”
A pulsing starts in my temples, and the breath seems to rush from my lungs.
An Alliance soldier creeps slowly along the hall around the corner from Max and Eric. Max is fully inside the wall. Eric is about to follow when something grabs his attention. He shoves the vent closed and moves swiftly in the other direction.
“No, no, no!” Andrea wails, jamming a fist to her mouth.
Eric disappears around the corner just as the soldier turns into the hall where Max is concealed.
“Oh, thank God!” Andrea sags in the chair.
I release a breath. “He just has to wait until that guy goes back. Then he can join Max.”
“This was a scheduled emergency protocol drill. All employees may now return to work. Thank you.
The soldier looks back and forth then shrugs, muttering something into his mic before retreating.
The PA system goes silent, having completed the prerecorded message. A residual high-pitched whine echoes in my ears. Grace sinks to the floor and shakes her head, pawing at her ears.
Tek's relieved tone comes over the walkie-talkie. “That was close.”
From the vantage point of the camera, we can see the vent Max is hidden behind and part of the hall where the soldier is. Eric peeks around the wall a few times before approaching the grating.
“Freeze, asshole!” The shout comes from behind Eric, and another soldier morphs from the shadows.
Eric flings both arms up. “Hey, I'm one of you—Ah!”
The soldier tasers Eric, who goes down hard. Tremors shake his large body, and he tries to speak but can't seem to form words.
The other soldier careens around the corner, taser in hand. “Where the fuck did he
the question of the day, isn't it?”
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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