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Chaos/Primeval: Absolute Truths (2/4)

December 22nd, 2012 (06:29 am)
chipper

feeling: chipper

PART ONE
PART TWO
PART THREE
PART FOUR



PART TWO

Wonder, awe, and uncertainty: there wasn’t much time for any of it. Michael didn’t even have much time to stew in his passive-aggressive frustrations. Within fifteen minutes of their arrival, they were ushered to the commander officer on site.

As team leader, Michael was used to taking point. But as soon as the man started speaking, Michael realized he was probably out of his depth.

“We’ve had a constant presence here for nearly twelve hours and we’ve had no sign of activity in or out of the anomaly,” the man reported dutifully. He was well armed and ever vigilant. Clearly, he’d been briefed thoroughly and had the sense to take it more seriously than Michael and his team.

Out of his depth or not, Michael wasn’t about to show it. Casey and Rick were behind him, keeping what Michael could only assume was a respectful distance, although Rick seemed to be watching the anomaly more than anything else.

Michael nodded and drew a breath to speak.

But Billy beat him to it. “What kind of movement have your men have around the site?”

“No one has come within five feet, as per our orders,” he reported.

Billy nodded. “So the tracks by the anomaly--”

“Are not ours,” the man confirmed.

Billy drew his lips together, glancing back toward the refracting lights. “I was afraid of that.” He hesitated for a moment, then nodded again. “Where is your secondary perimeter set up?”

“We have a secure line a mile out,” the man said. “And we do regular patrols through the woods, but it’s not exactly easy terrain to mark off.”

That was good, Michael thought. He was about to ask about the number of men and how often the patrols went out, but Billy never let him.

“No one goes alone,” the Scot continued, seemingly oblivious. “And start doing sweeps farther out. An extra three miles, if possible.”

“Intelligence suggested that one mile would be sufficient,” the man said.

Billy gave him a look, almost sympathetic. “This has nothing to do with intelligence,” he said. “Better safe than sorry.”

“But our orders--”

Billy’s face went blank, his entire body tensing. His eyes darkened and his gaze narrowed. “Your orders were given by people who don’t know anything about these things,” he said. “I can sit here and tell you how I know or you can simply take my advice and spare us all the trouble. Do the sweeps. And keep in radio contact at all times. If there’s anything unusual or out of place, I need to know.”

“And you’re Dorset?” the man asked.

Billy shifted awkwardly, looking at Michael as if finally remembering he was there.

Michael stepped forward. “I am. You can report to me.”

“And not him?” the man asked, eyes flicking to Billy.

Billy sighed. “It doesn’t matter,” he said curtly. “We can piss and moan about our egos, but the point is communication. We have to be open with each other at all times.”

Michael’s stomach roiled, going cold with the irony.

Billy stiffened under his withering glare, but offered no further explanation. Instead, he turned, moving off toward the anomaly.

Michael frowned. “Just let us know if your men come across anything,” he said, feeling meager, but it was all he had. “And we’ll take care of the rest from there.”

Bold words. A good plan.

Michael looked toward Billy, who was moving toward the anomaly carefully.

Somehow, Michael doubted that words and plans would be enough this time.

-o-

Michael didn’t like to follow -- it required him to abdicate too much control -- but the fact was, he didn’t have a lot of options this time around. Still, as he walked after Billy toward the anomaly, he took a slow, careful pace, as if that could somehow make it look like it had been his idea all along.

But the fact was, he was still a step behind, and it was hard as hell not to be annoyed when he arrived and Billy hardly even looked up.

Well, more annoyed.

Because Michael had been annoyed since this mission started, and each second that passed just seemed to make that worse. Each time Billy spoke before him, knew more than he did. And more than that, every movement, every action, every word -- it was different. Billy, but...not.

Especially now.

He’d crossed the two guards at the front of the anomaly, breezing by them without as much as a second look or a reassuring smile or friendly quip. Instead, he crouched low to the ground, reaching out and feeling at the soft earth with his fingers.

Coming up behind him, Michael saw what Billy was looking at. The ground was churned and broken, marred with indentations and scuffled brush. It wasn’t clear what had been through there, but the telltale signs of movement were everywhere.

Billy didn’t seem satisfied with that, though. His fingers ghosted over the ground, feeling the grooves and tracing them through the foliage. He stayed very still for a moment, eyes trained and focused, his entire body tense. For a second, Michael thought the man had run out of things to act superior about, but then Billy shifted, moving with unusual grace and speed as he got lightly to his feet and moved outward from the anomaly.

Michael frowned, finding himself trailing after the man again. “Something you want to tell me?” he asked, feeling unduly cross. Rather, duly cross. Very, very duly.

Billy didn’t seem to hear him, as he followed some unknown line of sight. He almost ran into a soldier, making no apology as he slipped by lifting up a low hanging bush, face grim.

Michael stopped cold in his tracks and sighed. “Tell me what we’re looking at or I’m not going another step,” he said plaintively. It wasn’t an order; Michael had never had to resort to orders. Yet.

Billy was trying his patience.

Billy was trying a lot of things.

Such as, the dirt. In his mouth.

Michael made a face. Behind him, Casey looked equally disgusted. Rick was still looking back at the damn anomaly.

Billy still didn’t answer, moving forward again, jumping over a fallen tree and pausing to trail his fingers along the moss.

“Billy,” Michael said, more insistent now. “What the hell are we doing?”

Finally, Billy stopped, looking back at Michael, almost with a look of surprise. “Tracking,” he said.

Michael’s nose crinkled. “What?”

Billy stood, nodding back toward the anomaly. “There are clear signs of movement and they lead this way,” he said. “If we can follow the trail through the woods, we should be able to find the creature. We’re lucky that the ground here is so moist; that should work in our favor.”

“Favor for what?” Michael asked.

“In finding the creature,” Billy said frankly.

“Unless it gets foggy,” Casey said.

“Or if it had an encounter with something locally,” Billy agreed. He looked thoughftul. “Or if it crossed water.”

“Wait,” Rick interjected, sounding a little desperate. “Creature? What kind of creature?”

Billy should have smiled. He should have offered a kind reassuring, some positive spin for Rick. For all of them.

All he did was shrug, though. “Looks big, given the tracks,” Billy said. “And probably not too fast.”

“What do you think it is?” Rick asked.

“Some sort of prehistoric creature with a lower IQ than modern mammals,” Casey muttered.

“It’s impossible to say,” Billy said. “We’d have to know where the anomaly leads to for even a guess.”

Michael rocked back a little on his heels. “So how are we going to track this thing?”

Billy blinked. “Just follow the trail,” he said.

“I see muddy earth,” Michael said.

Billy’s smile was grim. “Then you just need to follow me.”

“And do what exactly?” Michael asked tersely.

Billy didn’t miss a beat. “Carry the guns,” he said. He glanced at Casey. “The big ones.”

At that, Casey’s lips quirked into a smile. “With pleasure.”

Looking back at the trail, Billy shook his head. “I wouldn’t be so sure about that,” he said softly, almost under his breath.

“Okay,” Michael said, eyes on Casey and Rick again. “Go get our supplies from the Jeep. We’ll need to pack up and head out. Make sure you only take what you can carry. We may be out there for a while.”

Casey nodded and Rick stared at him wide-eyed before they complied. Then Michael turned to Billy. “We’ll have you at point--”

He didn’t finish. There was no need. Because Billy was already moving up the trail, following a line of evidence that Michael couldn’t see.

For the second time, Michael had no choice but to follow.

-o-

Most of the time, Michael was the one waiting for Billy. The Scot had always seemed to exist in his own leisurely world, where things like deadlines and appointments didn’t mean much. Carpooling had been an exercise in patience for Michael, since most days he had to go up to Billy’s door and physically drag him out in order to get to the office at a reasonable time. On missions, Billy was a little better, but he still had his own creative interpretation of what punctuality actually meant.

In the woods, however, it was a different story.

Billy moved quickly and methodically, traversing the ground noiselessly and tracking the small variations that Michael mostly missed. Sometimes he paused, studying something intently before darting off into the woods at an impressive clip that left Michael scrambling behind him, Rick and Casey hot on his heels.

At first, there was a novelty that kept them all silent. And really, it was fascinating to watch Billy. Billy had always had a wide skill set, but Michael had never seen him so focused in the field. He moved lithely and tracked like an expert. Given seven years they’d spent together, Michael was more than a little shocked that this had never come up before.

Or, Michael considered bitterly, Billy had just never admitted to it. As different as Billy was since this revelation came to light, Michael knew that some things were still the same. It wasn’t what Billy said that mattered most.

It was what he didn’t say.

Billy had slowed down an incline, moving along the bottom of a ravine when Michael finally couldn’t take it anymore.

“So you’ve done this before, huh?” he asked pointedly.

Billy didn’t even turn to look at him, hunched over with his brow furrowed as he fingered a trampled wildflower on the ground.

Behind Michael, Casey huffed and Rick shifted uncertainly from foot to foot, fingers resting nervously on the gun in his hip holster..

Billy was clearly focused; Michael clearly didn’t care. “I mean, I might expect superb tracking skills from an MI6 agent, but since you weren’t with MI6...”

Casey scoffed. “This is more advanced than any typical spy training,” he said.

“No kidding,” Rick said. “I had the highest score in survival training and I lost the trail about a mile ago.”

Billy straightened. “That’s because spy training is about tracking people and weapons,” he said. He looked at them. “This is about tracking animals. All you have are the natural elements.”

That made sense. On one level. “So you developed these skills after you got on with the ARC?” Michael pressed.

“That would only be like two years worth of training,” Casey concluded. “Not possible.”

Billy offered him a small smile. “Good observation,” he said. “I spent a lot of time at university and afterward tracking animals.”

Rick cocked his head. “Why?”

It was a simple question, one that cut to the heart of it, though. The one Michael had been pushing toward. Why had Billy gotten involved with the ARC. Why had Billy never told them. Why was Michael suddenly realize he didn’t know his right hand man at all?

Billy looked quizzical. “Why not?”

“I think what Martinez is trying to say,” Michael interjected roughly, “is what did you do before? You said you worked with the missing professor’s husband. Doing what exactly?”

Billy stopped, studying him discerningly for a moment. “And the paranoid bastard re-emerges,” he mused. “I thought we passed this after that mission to Dubai.”

The mission where Billy had proven himself -- and almost died following Michael’s orders. The Scot had never balked, though, not when it counted. Michael had had his reservations, but Billy’s performance on that mission had cemented things otherwise.

Until now. “I don’t do secrets,” he said flalty. “You of all people know that.”

Billy chuckled. “You of all people should know that’s not true,” he said. “We deal in lies, day after day. This is what we do for a living, what I’ve always done. I don’t like them any more than you do, but they’re necessary.”

“So is trust,” Michael countered, his voice rising, his posture stiffening.

Billy seemed to sense the aggression, holding himself very still. “That part of my life is classified,” he said.

“The anomalies, sure,” Michael replied. “But the rest? You weren’t MI6. Hell, you what, were a student? Worked at a university? After all this, you still haven’t told us anything about yourself.”

It was more than he’d intended to say, and yet still nowhere near as much as he wanted to say. He wanted to ask Billy how he could walk in, day after day, and hold in lies that big. How he could talk about trust and friendship and camaraderie when he was the biggest fake of them all. He wanted to shove Billy, to knock some sense into him, and tell him to just leave while Michael sorted this out.

Instead, he stood there, frozen, eyes locked with Billy.

For his part, Billy stared back. After a moment, he sighed, shoulders slouching, face inscrutable. “I was a lab assistant,” he said. “After my first professor disappeared, I left the PhD program and stayed on as an assistant instead. That was almost more my interest, anyway. The academia was only a necessary groundwork to do what I really loved.”

“Which was?” Rick asked quietly.

“Conservation,” he said.

Casey’s face screwed up. “You can study that in college?”

“I studied Evolutionary Biology,” Billy supplied. “We looked at creatures in their natural habitats and used historical evidence to see how they’d changed and to look for patterns. We could then use that information to better understand how life evolves and how it is continuing to evolve.”

“And why would they want that on a team studying the anomalies?” Casey asked.

Billy shrugged. “Maybe they wouldn’t,” he said. “But the historical background was important. We could identify the type of creature and what time period it came from.”

“But you were a lab assistant,” Michael pointed out. “Why did they want you?”

It was sharper than he intended -- yet, not sharp enough.

Still, Billy’s smile turned wry. “Again, maybe they didn’t,” he said. “But Professor Cutter and I -- my boss -- were some of the first ones to discovery the anomaly. My tracking and hunting skills became an asset pretty quickly. The team that formed -- it just happened, much to the disapproval of Home Office. Sometimes you have to work with what you get.”

Michael wanted to laugh at that. It was the story of his life. His entire stint with the ODS, he’d picked up the strays and misfits and worked them together into a team. The antisocial and the overzealous...

And the lab assistants who stumbled into national secrets.

It wasn’t exactly impressive, no matter how many trails Billy found in the woods.

The silence lingered. Finally, Billy shrugged. “No other questions?” he asked. “We can continue the interrogation later but for now, I think it’s best if we stay focused on the task at hand.”

That was easy for Billy to say. Because as long as they were on this mission, Michael needed him. After that...

Well, Michael wasn’t sure what would happen after that. But he had a feeling things were going to be different.

As Billy took off, Casey just behind him and Rick after that, Michael brought up the rear. Things were already different.

-o-

After hours through the woods, Michael was bored. Sure, he knew that sometimes things in the spy game took time. Heck, he’d been preaching that to his team for years. He had always been willing to spend the extra time needed to check and double check, to have the big picture, full and complete, no matter how long it took.

But a few hours traipsing through the woods wasn’t the same thing. When working on a mission, Michael could see the details taking shape. Out here, following a trail of mud and stones, seemed like a wild good chase. There were only so many times Billy could look serious or crouch low before Michael started to wonder if it was all an act. If he was pulling another lie over on them. Maybe he couldn’t track; maybe he was just biding his time hoping like hell something worked out to make him seem not like a total hack.

Or maybe this was just Billy’s way of getting back at Michael for giving him the cold shoulder. That didn’t seem quite like Billy, but nothing seemed quite like Billy since this entire debacle began this morning.

Had it only been this morning? Had Michael’s entire team almost collapsed on itself in an entire day?

Michael just hoped that whatever stupid plan Billy had, that it came to fruition soon because it was almost night and Michael had no desire to get lost in the mountains in the dark. Especially with Billy Collins, who may or may not be someone Michael could trust.

In fact, Michael was pretty sure they were going in circles, and even though Billy was the so-called expert, Michael was ready to call this off. Casey was anxious and ready to kill something; Rick just looked increasingly uncertain with each passing moment. This was bad for the team. This was just bad.

“Hey,” he said. “I think maybe we should consider stopping for the night--”

He said it diplomatically, which really, Michael thought was above and beyond the call of duty. But Billy’s only response was to stop abruptly, holding up his hand.

Michael frowned. “I didn’t mean right here.

But Billy didn’t seem to hear him. Suddenly, Billy didn’t seem aware of him at all. His entire posture was rigid, even his breathing stilled as he seemed to cock his head and strain his eyes.

“What--” Michael began, but Billy lifted his hand higher.

Casey tensed; Rick pulled his gun.

A beat passed. Two.

Nothing happened.

Michael sighed. “This is stupid--”

But then a screech ripped through the twilight and there was a flash of movement. Rick yelped and fired, Casey striking a defensive pose even as Michael stumbled back and Billy stepped forward.

Forward between the team and the creature, which was poised and waiting no more than three yards in front of them.

-o-

For a second, no one moved. Not Billy, not his team. Not Michael.

Not the large, rather strange-looking creature in front of him.

And it was a strange-looking creature. About five feet long, with rough, brownish skin. Its eyes glinted in the growing dark, large mouth full of distinctive teeth. All gleaming, bared and open as it stared intently at them.

Angrily. And probably a little scared. And upset.

Michael sort of knew how it felt, but seeing as Michael was a person and this was a prehistoric creature that had wandered through a rift in time, his opinion mattered more.

Although, admittedly, the creature might have had a stronger case.

Not that Michael was going to admit that.

Or even admit to the fact that he was standing there, personifying said creature instead of doing something about it.

But at least no one else seemed to be doing anything either.

Rick was frozen, face totally blank as he seemed to be stunned into total and abject silence. Which was a step down from the generalized shock he’d been experiencing so far. Casey was poised to strike, but the fact that he hadn’t said a lot.

Billy, who had been the picture of proactive action for the first time in his entire career, was just as still as the rest of them, body almost coiled, so tense that it looked like he could snap. Michael had seen Billy stressed out before; he’d seen Billy on edge, but not like this.

Not like this.

Not like this.

This was why Michael was team leader.

Now he just needed a plan.

A plan. To subdue the massive creature traipsing through the forest so he could take it back to some glittering lights and send it back to the past.

Or something.

And he had nothing.

Not a plan, not a team, Nothing.

But then, he didn’t have to.

Because before he could move, Billy had pulled his gun. The sudden movement spooked the creature who started to charge. Michael braced himself, preparing to run, hand out to pull Casey and Rick with him, but Billy pulled the trigger once and twice and--

Then the animal crashed to the ground, skidding with its momentum as its large head plowed into the ground and coming to a stop right in front of Billy.

Straightening, Billy lowered his gun and glanced back with an eyebrow arched. “You were saying?”

-o-

Billy didn’t waste any time. He approached the fallen creature, leaning forward and putting a hand on its back, waiting for the visible rise and fall of its chest.

“Tranquilizers?” Michael realized.

Billy looked up. “Had them prepare a gun for me specially,” he said.

“And the rest of ours?” Casey asked pointedly, his face darkening ominously.

“Regular bullets, don’t worry,” Billy said, getting back to his feet. He wiped his hands on his pants. “I wanted to see if we could capture the creature alive, but I’m not so stupid as to run in without backup.”

Not so stupid. Somehow Michael had his doubts, although the sedated creature was powerful evidence to the contrary.

“So that’s it?” Casey asked, coming closer as he looked down at the thing. “That’s the grave matter of national concern?”

Rick joined him, more tentative. “What is it?”

Billy took a breath and let it back out. “I’d have to look it up to be sure,” he said. He narrowed his gaze critically. “It’s been a while, but it look like some sort of early cynodont.”

It sounded like gibberish, and knowing Billy, it probably was.

“I’ll assume that you’re not trying my patience by making that up,” Casey said curtly.

Billy smirked, just a little. “No,” he said. “It stands for dog teeth. There are still some that exist today, but this bloke is clearly not from around here.”

“How can you tell?” Rick asked.

Billy gestured. “Look at it,” he said. “The size alone. Plus, although it’s a mammal, it still looks more reptilian than any modern relatives might.” He shook his head. “No, our friend here is definitely from the anomaly.”

Michael hated to admit it -- and he certainly wouldn’t say it out loud at this point -- but Billy was probably right. The thing did look unnaturally big. And with its jaw slack in unconsciousness, it did look like it had dog teeth. So apparently not everything Billy told them was a lie.

Just the important things.

There was an awkward silence.

“I’m still not impressed,” Casey said finally. “An overgrown dog doesn’t exactly instill fear.”

“No,” Billy agreed. “I reckon not. Though I’m not sure the public would take so kindly to the idea of rifts in time.”

“How can we be sure?” Rick asked. “This kind of discovery...I mean, the scientific implications alone...aren’t we doing a disservice to people?”

Billy looked at him, a small smile playing on his lips. “Ah, the words of idealism,” he said. “It’s not my call to make, and I don’t intend on pretending like it is. I’ll leave such things to wiser men than I and simply follow my orders.”

He sounded like he meant it. Of course, he’d be more convincing were he actually a trained spy.

Michael drew a breath, trying to keep the majority of his frustration at bay. He could deal with the scientific fallout tomorrow. After he figured out the implications for his team. Which meant, it was at least time to go. “Well,” he said. “At least it’s over. If we hurry back to the home base, we can maybe get a ride out of here, be back to Langley in the morning.”

Rick and Casey seemed agreeable to that, but Billy wet his lips, looking back down at the creature. “I’m afraid it’s not that easy.”

Michael frowned. He’d tolerated the lies and Billy’s assumed command while it was necessary, but as far as he could tell, it wasn’t necessary anymore. “We’ve got trained men on the anomaly twenty-four hours a day. I read the intel on these things. It’s probably not going to stay open more than a few days, max. If anything comes through, they’ll shoot it.” He shrugged. “End of story.”

“I’m inclined to agree,” Casey said. “I’m finding this mission to be a poor use of my skills.”

Billy chuffed slightly. “There are two sets of tracks.”

Michael’s frown deepened. “What?”

Billy nodded back toward the trail. “There’s been two sets of tracks,” he said. “This one was much easier to follow, which is why we stumbled across our friend here first, but she’s not the only one here.”

“Great,” Casey said snidely. “So much for getting back to productive things again.”

Rick shook his head. “The two tracks, are they the same creatures?”

“Not even close,” Billy said. “This one -- she’s slower and lumbering. Teeth like that, she’s a herbivore. I’m amazed she survived this long.”

Michael pursed his lips, his annoyance hitching again. “And why’s that?”

“Because she’s being stalked,” Billy said plainly.

Casey’s eyebrows went up. “As in, hunted?”

“As in, there’s a predator out there?” Rick asked, his voice dropping dangerously.

“Indeed,” Billy said.

At that, Michael finally just laughed. “But this thing is massive,” he said. “What kind of predator would take it on?”

Billy pressed his lips together, glancing out into the forest. “I’m afraid we’ll find out soon enough.”

Michael scoffed outright. “This is ridiculous,” he said. “I know you want us to buy into this whole super-tracker thing, but I know how much you exaggerate--”

“There’s a bloody rip in time and prehistoric creatures running amok,” Billy said, sharper now. “I don’t think I need to exaggerate. Now I know you’re upset with me and we can talk about that, but for right now, this is the job we were assigned to.”

“No,” Michael said, taking an ominous step toward Billy. “This is the job you were assigned to do and the rest of us just got pulled along for the ride. And if it’s so important to you, why aren’t you still in England, playing the happy hunter back there?”

Something shifted in Billy’s face, and his jaw tightened, his shoulders tensing. “We have bigger issues--”

Michael rolled his eyes. “Do we?” he asked. “Do we really? These woods have been cleared. If this thing takes out a deer, then I’m sure that’s sad for Bambi, but it’s not that big of deal.”

“It’s not Bambi I’m worried about,” Billy snapped, not backing down.

To the side, Casey was watching them carefully. Rick looked positively uncomfortable. Michael was in too deep to back down now.

“Then what are you worried about?” Michael asked. “Proving yourself to us? Because running through the woods at night with a tranq gun isn’t going to cut it.”

“No,” Billy said, unrelenting even as his voice seemed to twinge with emotion. “I’m worried that if we don’t hunt this predator -- right here, right now -- it will start hunting us.”

-o-

If Michael did bad with orders, he did worse with seeing no way around them. Because it was possible that Billy was making up a story about some gigantic predator -- and maybe that would be a tactic the Billy he thought he knew would use -- but the fact was, ever since those stupid glittering lights appeared, Billy hadn’t been very much like Billy at all.

So, Michael made a new plan. Track predator, capture it, get the hell out. Maybe it was simplistic, but Michael figured it could work.

“Okay,” he said, inserting himself between Billy and the creature. It was stupid, maybe, but he was still the team leader. And he was going to act like it, and his team was going to listen. “I’ve just got off the radio with base, and they’re sending a team to our location.”

“They’re bringing a transport?” Billy asked.

Michael glared at him. “Well, I think they’d have a hard time carrying the thing--”

“But is it a secure transport?” Billy pressed.

“How should I know?” Michael asked.

“It’s impossible to say how long the tranquilizers will last,” Billy said simply. “We don’t want her waking up mid-journey. She needs to be secured or we could have an angry creature waking up in a moving car.”

Billy had a point. Damn it, he had a good point, but Michael wasn’t about to acknowledge that. “It’s taken care of, Collins,” he snapped. “Any other questions?”

Billy’s mouth shut purposefully and he remained silent.

Michael took a steadying breath. “Right now, we’ll split up,” he said. “We were tasked with containing this problem, so I want to be sure that we see this creature back to the home base.”

“But the predator--” Billy began, but cut off when Michael looked coolly at him again.

“Casey,” he continued, turning his eyes to the older operative. “You and Billy will continue tracking the other creature. I want almost constant radio contact. Check-ins every fifteen minutes.”

It was probably a little overkill, but Michael needed to feel in control. Even if that meant micromanaging his team a lot more than usual. It wasn’t his style most of the time, but apparently these were desperate times.

And these were Michael desperate measures.

He turned to Rick. “We’ll wait here until the team arrives and make sure the transfer is successful,” he said. “Once we regroup and check-in with Langley, we’ll contact the others and go back out on the trail.”

It sounded very reasonable. Michael was actually a bit impressed with himself. Rick was still so shaken by the fact that apparently time was fluid to say much, and Casey just nodded. Michael looked at Billy finally, finding the Scot’s face unreadable.

Billy was always harder to read than he let on, but Michael was usually pretty good at it.

Now, though -- now Billy was virtually a stranger.

But he didn’t argue.

“Okay,” Michael said, eyes on Casey again. “Let’s do this.”

Casey nodded, but Billy didn’t meet Michael’s gaze again, expression taut as he turned and pulled out his flashlight, shining it along the ground before taking off into the woods, Casey not far behind.

That was okay, though, Michael told himself. He looked at Rick, who looked nervously back at him. He glanced down at the creature.

It was all going to be okay.

-o-

It was actually a good plan, if simplistic, but waiting there in the growing dark with a massive creature that could wake up at any moment was not really Michael’s idea of a good time. Being idle was bad enough; being idle with the possibility of further confrontation was much worse.

Mostly, it annoyed Michael.

Rick, however, couldn’t shake his agitation.

Michael gave the kid a hard time. Even after so much time on the team, it was easy to treat him like the new guy and part of Michael believed that hazing never had to end until someone newer came along. But still, Martinez was good at his job. He was overzealous, sure, but still the quintessential professional. So to watch him on this mission, pale-faced and unnerved, was unsettling. It would bother Michael more if he wasn’t so busy being bothered by the fact that Billy wasn’t actually Billy.

But now that it was just the two of them, Rick’s jittery behavior was harder to ignore. Moreover, Michael had overlooked enough when it came to his team. If he was going to retain control, he couldn’t take it for granted any longer.

“So,” Michael said, broaching the uncomfortable stillness. “Crazy mission, huh?”

The ODS had a knack for understatement on normal days, but this was pushing it, even for them. As if to punctuate the absurdity, the creature snuffled loudly in its drug-induced slumber. Michael tensed, but it settled back into apparent unconsciousness.

Rick stared at him.

Michael cleared his throat, shifting himself so he was leaning against a tree. “Bet you never thought you’d see something like this when you joined the CIA,” he said.

Rick snorted. “I prepared myself for the unpredictable,” he said. His eyes lingered on the creature. He shook his head. “But this...it’s just unbelievable.”

Rick was good at that sort of thing: wonder. He didn’t just see missions and assets; he saw causes and people. The whole rifts in time thing was more annoying than anything for Michael, but Rick was able to see it for what it was. Sometimes Michael missed the obvious stuff.

His stomach tightened in a knot, thinking of Billy.

“Yeah,” he agreed finally. “That’s the thing with this job, though. Once you think you know everything, you find out you know nothing.”

Rick’s gaze lingered a moment more, eyeing the creature before he dropped his head. When he looked up again, his expression was rueful. “Well, I’m just glad Billy knows what’s going on with all this. If not for him, we’d be flying blind on this one.”

Rick meant it. Of course Rick meant it. But Rick was young and naive and so damn earnest. He hadn’t spent the better part of a decade with Billy; he’d been so busy grappling with the scientific realities to grasp the rapidly shifting team dynamic.

But the kid wasn’t as oblivious as Michael thought, and Michael quickly saw Martinez pinning him with a quizzical look. “You don’t think so?” he asked.

Michael did his best not to scoff. The smile he offered was still condescending. “His knowledge would be more helpful if I knew I could trust it.”

“You saw him out here,” Rick said. “He’s good.”

“Yeah, and he’s also lied about everything from the moment I met him,” Michael returned, harsher than he intended.

Rick raised his eyebrows. “Oh, and the rest of you have always been so truthful? I seem to remember being tricked into selling secrets to the Russians about five minutes into the job.”

Michael bristled. It wasn’t false, and he knew it. He’d never exactly been a shining example of openness and honesty, even amongst the worst liars in the Agency. But this...was different. This wasn’t a white lie to get by on a mission. It wasn’t a scheme concocted for his general end game. It was an encompassing omission.

Rick shook his head. “He’s still Billy.”

“Is he?” Michael asked, pouncing now. “Because he hasn’t seemed like Billy at all since we got called into Higgins’ office.”

At that, Rick’s confidence wavered. “Well, he has been a little different--”

“A little?” Michael said. “He’s barely recognizable.”

“Well, I mean, I didn’t know he could track like that--”

“Yeah, me neither,” Michael said. “And I’ve worked with him for almost eight years. It’s not like I couldn’t have used a tracker from time to time, but he just never saw fit to share that detail with us.”

Rick seemed to digest that. His gaze flickered away, and he adjusted his position, keeping a wary eye on the creature. “Have you noticed his accent?”

Michael frowned. “I’ve been a little busy, Martinez--”

“I know, but his accent is different,” Rick continued.

The knot in Michael’s stomach tightened even further. “Different how?”

“Well, I mean, it’s sort of hard to pinpoint, but it seems inconsistent all of a sudden,” Rick said. He shrugged. “Sometimes when he hits his syllables, he doesn’t sound Scottish at all. I mean, it’s probably just stress and I’ve always been surprised with how strong his accent is after all these years here--”

Rick was trying to soften it. He was trying to explain it away. He was trying to make the discrepancy fit into a big picture that didn’t make sense any more. Michael had taken so much for granted, he’d assumed and now none of it was true.

He’d thought Billy was their charmer, recruited from the ashes of a failed MI6 career. An affable Scotsman, born and bruised in North Edinburgh.

It wasn’t true, though. There was no failed MI6 career. There was just a lackluster academic career and an accidental recruitment under the Official Secrets Act. If that much had been a lie, then maybe the rest was, too.

Maybe everything was.

He checked his watched. “They’ll be here soon,” he said. “When we get back to base, I want you to check in with Casey.”

“What about you?” Rick asked.

Michael turned his eyes out to the forest. “Don’t worry about it,” he said. “There are just a few things I need to take care of.”

-o-

On the way back, Michael sat up front with the driver. In the back, Martinez sat side by side with a trio of armed soldiers, each looking more startled than the last at their rather unusual cargo.

“It’s a cynodont,” Rick told them, nodding at the thing. It barely fit in the transport, and the soldiers were pressed against the wall, as if trying to avoid touching it.

One of the soldiers looked at Rick. “A what?”

Another sniggered. “Like it matters,” he said. “Big ass son of a bitch -- glad to get this killer back where it belongs.”

“It’s a herbivore, actually,” Rick said, as if he’d known that all along. “Might trample you, but it’s not out to eat you.”

He said it, smooth as can be, not even a hint of hesitation. When he looked back toward Michael, their eyes met and Rick had the decency to blush a little.

But that didn’t stop him from standing tall, as if he hadn’t been quivering in his boots and standing slack-jawed for most of the mission. He’d known Rick had heart, but he’d never seen the kid so committed to artifice before. Sure, he could pull off a cover, but this was so natural--

Not that it didn’t make sense. Rick hadn’t been able to hide his fear on their trek, and he was probably compensating for it now. That much was perhaps expected. But Michael hadn’t expected him to be so good at it.

It was amusing...

And it was unsettling. It just drove home the point: maybe he didn’t know his team near as well as he thought he did. Maybe he’d taken too much for granted. If he’d missed these things, what else had he missed?

Somehow, driving back to base with a prehistoric creature stowed in back, he wasn’t sure he wanted to know.

But ignorance, he knew, was no longer an option he could afford.

-o-

When they got to the base, Rick helped the soldiers unload the creature. Despite the younger man’s bravado, he was clearly apprehensive around the anomaly again, and Michael saw him stealing more than a few glances at the twinkling lights.

Michael, however, didn’t spare them a second look. He didn’t even bother to help with the creature. He made his way over to the commander he’d talked to earlier. “We caught one of the creatures,” he said.

The man’s face was pinched. “One?”

“Seems like there’s two,” Michael said, and if he took a page of Rick’s book and made it sound like it was his knowledge and not Billy’s, at least no one around was going to call him on it.

The man looked duly vexed, but Michael didn’t have time for it.

“We’ve got half our team still out tracking it,” he said. “Keep up your patrols and maintain radio contact. We’ll head back out and meet up with our team to finish the job.”

With a tight nod, the man said. “Is there anything you need.”

Michael inclined his head. “As a matter of fact, there is,” he said. “I need access to your most secure line.”

-o-

Michael kept the phone call brief, but that didn’t mean it wasn’t productive. A short call and a secure fax later, and Michael had what he was looking for.

And then some.

As promised, Billy’s file was complete and unredacted, scrawled with notes in the margins of the official report. It was a picture of a copy, scanned and reprinted before finally being faxed, so parts were hard to read, but the details were there.

Finally, Michael knew the whole story.

Not that he knew what to do with it.

As he was glancing over the details a second time, someone rustled at the door of the tent. Michael looked up to see Martinez.

“Hey,” Rick said.

“Just a sec,” Michael said. “We’ll head back out--”

Rick nodded. “That’s good,” he said, then hesitated, brow furrowed. “Um. I think you’ll want to see this first, though.”

-o-

With all the facts, Michael was capable of anything. He’d been grasping at straws for most of this mission, but empowered now, he approached it with new vigor.

Running through the woods, they needed a high powered flashlight now, but with GPS positioning, it wasn’t hard to find Billy and Casey. He kept Rick moving at a good clip, and by the time they caught up with the other half of the ODS, the younger operative was breathing heavily and sweating.

Michael barely felt a thing.

Instead, he stood taller than before, keeping his head high as he looked past Casey and straight at Billy.

“We need to talk.”

Billy’s face was grim in the beam of the flashlight. “We’ve got a fresh trail--”

Michael didn’t waver. “Now.”

Billy looked ready to protest, but he drew himself to his full height, meeting Michael’s gaze unflinchingly. “All right,” he said. “Am I safe in assuming that this isn’t idle chit chat?”

Michael smirked. “I thought you liked to talk.”

“Everything in its time and place,” Billy continued. “We do have a vicious predator out here--”

“That’s convenient,” Michael said.

Billy worked his jaw, lips coming together. Casey and Rick were at their side now, watching cautiously.

Michael took a breath. “That’s also still our top priority,” he said. “Which is why I think you need to hear this.”

Comments

Posted by: kristen_mara (kristen_mara)
Posted at: January 12th, 2013 08:07 am (UTC)
Hair!


I love how Billy is becoming Stephen again as he deals with the anomaly and tracks, and how Michael is (not) dealing with the revelations.

LOL re the soldiers and Rick reacting to the creature!

Posted by: do i dare or do i dare? (faye_dartmouth)
Posted at: February 3rd, 2013 01:42 pm (UTC)
stephen goodbye

It was tricky to believably meld two very disparate characters so I'm glad you liked it!

LOL poor Rick. He didn't have much to do but be shocked!

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