The call from Beckman didn't come at 5 AM. It didn't even come by 8AM. Chuck glared at the clock whose evil red LED numbers were clearly to blame for the silence of his cell phone. Too bad he couldn't nail that pompous piece of electronics with a throwing knife like Sarah could. Intersect flashes didn't generally indulge his petty annoyance with inanimate objects. That was why the clock was on his side of the bed. So he could shut it off before pre-caffeinated Sarah silenced the evil demon permanently and they had to buy another evil demon to replace it.
So the mission briefing probably wasn't happening in the morning. On the one hand, that probably meant Ellie was being thorough with those neurological tests for Sarah. Thorough was good. But on the other hand, it meant Chuck didn't have any excuse not to get up and start another day as a Nerd Herder.
He didn't mind helping Morgan out; heaven knew how many times Morgan had covered for him. Nor did he find it difficult or degrading to work on computers. Unlike life, computers were predictable. Not reliable, but predictable even in their unreliability.
He no longer despised the Buy More as he once had. It had served as a great cover and it kept their fledgling Carmichael Industries afloat when Decker froze all their assets. If only the chintzy aisles of green and yellow didn't hold so many bittersweet memories, it would be a pleasant distraction to keep his hands and mind busy while he waited for the call.
He got to the apartment's courtyard first, but only because Morgan and Alex were standing in their doorway, making out like a couple of high school kids. Chuck was truly happy for Morgan, but right now, all their passionate PDA was another reminder of what he missed. Thankfully, they cut it short and Morgan joined him before Chuck had to resort to the 'Hello? I'm standing here waiting' fake cough.
"Did General Beckman call yet?" Morgan asked.
"No, not yet," Chuck said, trying hard to keep his tone and his face neutral. "I'm going to stick to on-site repairs today though."
"You're doing more of my Nerd Herd repairs? Wow, thanks, man. Did you eat? If we hurry, we can beat Big Mike to the Subway line." They started out.
"Sounds great, buddy." Good thing he didn't try to put a Pop-Tart in his stomach already. A breakfast sandwich would be a lot more nutritious, not to mention tastier.
They ordered food, but Morgan got called away to handle some issue with the microwave oven displays. Chuck got a takeout bag and left Morgan's food in his office. He took his own food back to the cage and ate while he fixed computers. It was quiet back here. Nobody bothered him except an occasional green-shirt looking for the last hot pink iPod before they'd be telling customers it was only available in slate gray.
He lost all track of time, buried in motherboards and laptop guts. He'd fixed six or seven different units before his cell finally buzzed. Never had he been so relieved to see Beckman's grouchy picture on his phone. "Yes, General?"
"I just got word that our Chicago agents are ready for video conferencing now. Are you and Mr. Grimes close to Castle?"
"We're already at the Buy More."
"Good. Conference will be in fifteen minutes." She cut off communication before Chuck had a chance to say anything else.
Chuck signed off on the last repair he'd done, threw away his Subway trash, and locked up the cage behind him. He found Morgan in the manager's office, chatting with Big Mike. Chuck didn't mean to listen in, but it sounded like Big Mike said, "Bolonia" which meant he was talking about Morgan's mother and very likely making Morgan feel uncomfortable.
Chuck waved from outside the open door. "Hey Morgan. That health insurance guy is here to see you. He said to meet him at the Orange Orange. He's crazy about yogurt."
Even with the beard, it was plain to see the relief wash over his best friend's face. "Thanks, Chuck. Sorry, Big Mike, gotta go." He rushed to get around his desk.
Big Mike crossed his arms over his chest and smiled with pride, like he was somehow personally responsible for Morgan's accomplishments as store manager. "I'll hold down the fort," he promised.
Morgan sighed with relief. "Saved me again, Chuck. I mean, I know I need Big Mike. He runs the Buy More when I'm not here and we both know I disappear a lot—not as much as you, but you're not the manager. I get it that my mom loves him, but why does he insist on bragging about his sexual escapades with my mother?"
Chuck grinned. "Probably because he knows how much it bugs you."
Morgan shuddered, which was a bit comical to watch because he was so short that it shook his whole body. "Damn straight it bugs me."
Chuck wanted to rub it in, but any talk of sex was just a bit too close to sensitive right now. Besides, he understood the feeling. He'd lived with Ellie and Awesome and seen and heard things he was never quite able to scrub out of his mind. He patted Morgan on the back and checked to make sure Big Mike wasn't watching them. The Orange Orange was no longer the best way to get into Castle, since Sarah wasn't working there. The Buy More employee locker room was still good, but it was too close to the manager's office. They would need to use the home theater entrance.
The coast was clear. They slipped into the home theater and disappeared down the trap door into Castle. It was eerie how quiet it was now, with just the two of them there. No Casey cleaning guns. No Sarah sitting at the table, doing her paperwork. Chuck even felt a momentary twinge of nostalgia for the Gretas who'd once been so abundant.
After the lights, he turned on the computer system and the video conferencing software. He checked the line to be sure it was properly encrypted for the kind of briefing they planned. He took a seat at the table and nodded encouragingly at Morgan for him to do the same. Morgan placed his hands in his lap while Chuck folded his atop the table.
They sat in silence a few seconds before Chuck got uncomfortable. "Did you get your breakfast sandwich I left in your office?"
"What? Yeah, thanks. Some meatball microwaved a dead mouse until it exploded."
He chuckled. "That sounds like a Jeff and Lester prank. Do we know who's taken up their mantle?"
"Not yet, but Big Mike's on the case, checking the security cam footage."
"So what's the standard penalty for mouse exploding?" Chuck didn't care that much, except to keep the silence at bay.
"First we want to find out where he—or she—got the mouse. No points for pet store, but if they're good with traps, we'll let 'em off with cleaning the mess and becoming the new rodent eliminator in the break room."
Morgan nodded and lowered his voice. "Turds have been spotted."
"You mean, other than the employees." Chuck put enough jesting tone in his voice that it couldn't be mistaken for serious. They both had been Buy-Morons before being owner and manager, so they both felt completely entitled to hurl insults as an in-joke.
This particular joke didn't faze Morgan one bit. He nodded and said, "Yeah, too small to be employees."
"That was a joke, buddy."
"Oh? Yeah, of course."
Chuck wasn't sure if Morgan saw the irony or was just playing it cool. But before he could say anything else, the video screen activated. General Beckman sat in her usual spot, wearing her uniform and looking very professional and governmental.
"Good morning, Burbank," she said pleasantly. "Let's get this started." She pressed a button on her desk and the screen split to show Beckman on the right side with "Washington DC" spelled across the bottom. "Chicago" labeled the right-side video feed, presumably from Ellie's house, but since Chuck had never been there, he couldn't be sure.
"Hi, Sarah; hi, Mom," Chuck said brightly, earning a scowl from Beckman. Mom smiled back and winked at him. Sarah nodded with a close-lipped smile, but she looked embarrassed that he'd recognized her or taken the time to say hello.
"I think we're all acquainted," Beckman said in her scolding voice. She pressed another button and her face disappeared from the Washington feed to be replaced with a surveillance shot of a Caucasian male riding in a beat-up jeep 4 x 4. What little background they could see was filled with trees. Beckman narrated while leaving the photo visible. "This is Dr. Nikolai Rodchenko."
Chuck's eyes twitched as he felt the surge of data from the Intersect. Images of agricultural laboratories, page after page of genetic maps, test tubes, and photographs of thousands of seedlings growing in artificial light. He blinked and shook his head tightly. "He's a plant geneticist. They call him the Russian Mendel. He's worked nearly all of his life for the Ministry of Agriculture, developing hardier, more prolific strains of various grains. He lives in St. Petersburg."
Beckman switched the video back to her camera. "Not anymore. That photo was taken yesterday in an Argentinian jungle. We believe he is now living in a huge underground bunker facility, 200 kilometers from the nearest village."
Sarah frowned. "Why would a Russian agricultural scientist suddenly move to the middle of nowhere in Argentina?"
"That's exactly what we'd like you to find out. Dr. Rodchenko didn't have the means to do this on his own. Someone else built that bunker and then financed his relocation."
"Do we have any idea who?" Mom asked.
"It's all speculation, Agent Bartowski, but you know more Russian underground figures than anyone else in the CIA. We're hoping you can find out who is paying the bills and why they hired Dr. Rodchenko."
The lady agents nodded. Sarah asked, "How are we getting there?"
"You'll take a commercial flight to Buenos Aires and then transfer to a small plane for airdrop. Mr. Grimes, you will coordinate with our field office in Buenos Aires to make sure Agents Walker and Bartowski have everything they could possibly need packed in two backpacks and waiting for them on that plane."
Chuck wondered how Beckman knew about Morgan's excellent foresight in packing for missions, right down to the Tide-to-Go he'd strategically placed in Chuck's pocket when he planned to propose to Sarah at a French château. Maybe Casey had mentioned it.
Morgan looked contemplative, like the gears in his head were spinning. "General, do they need camping gear?"
For once, Beckman didn't seem to mind the interruption. "Not if they land their parachutes close enough to the bunker and are able to get in."
Morgan sounded really excited when he spoke again, this time to Mom: "Mrs. B, how much weight do you think you can carry? Just ballpark. Ever bench-press?"
Now the general was definitely annoyed. "They're jumping out of a plane and hiking through a jungle! There will be no pack mules. It is your job to prioritize the equipment so they don't have to carry any extra burden."
Morgan nodded vigorously and looked down at the table when he spoke again. "Yes, ma'am. Only what they need." He looked up at the screen again, specifically to the Chicago side. "No extra burdens, I promise."
Mom winked at Morgan, but Sarah didn't react. If she couldn't remember Morgan, she had to think his involvement in the mission was stupid and superfluous.
Beckman relaxed her voice. "Chuck, I'm sending you all our satellite and infra-red images of the bunker. See if you can flash and figure out the best way for them to get inside." She hit a key on the computer in the background, probably sending the images through encrypted email.
"Done, General," Chuck said.
"Any questions?" Beckman only waited a second before deciding there were none and resumed her talking. "Ladies, your flight leaves O'Hare in two hours. Good luck." She pressed a button and her image disappeared.
Chuck looked at two of the most important women in his life staring at him from the video screen. He produced a nervous grin. "So... Argentina. That's... cool, right?"
"Morgan," Mom said urgently but with full motherly sweetness, "Don't you worry about the burden. Sarah and I are both strong. You be sure and tell them to pack us plenty of weapons, mosquito net, and anti-malaria pills."
"W-Weapons, Mom?" Chuck tried to keep from chiding his mother. She was a spy, after all.
His mother gave him a serious look. "Yes, weapons, Chuck. General Beckman is right, I know a lot of Russian bad guys, but I also know Alexei killed the majority of his competition over the last twenty years. So it's either someone good enough to elude Volkoff and his entire Hydra network, or it's someone so new that he's a wildcard. Both of these options are bad."
Now Chuck really wished Casey were going. Sarah, however, had already balked at calling him. It was not a good idea to bring up anything that would result in Mom and Sarah fighting with each other before they even got on the plane. They needed to bond and have some good chats to help Sarah regain her memory. Beckman would have made them take someone else if she thought they needed it.
"You both be careful. If it gets dangerous, call for extraction, all right? We can always try again." Chuck knew that wasn't always true, but this plant guru guy didn't really sound important enough to risk lives over, even if Volkoff himself had been behind hiring him. Maybe the Argentinians just wanted someone to develop a better wheat.
"We'll be fine, honey," Mom said. "I need to go pack. Ellie said she would call you after she drops us off at the airport."
She stepped out of the picture. Morgan was already on a computer, looking up climate conditions in Argentina.
Chuck was alone with his wife—well, as alone as one could get when she was hundreds of miles away. "Sarah? Did the neurological tests go okay? How do you feel? You've been so quiet."
"Have I? I'm a little tired, but I just haven't felt the need to talk much. It's a pretty straightforward mission. Infiltrate. Gather intel. Report back and wait for instructions."
"You sure? What about the tests? What did Ellie say?"
She shrugged. "Ellie said she has a lot of data to analyze. I think it will be a while. But there wasn't anything that would make it unsafe for me to go on this mission. Please don't worry."
"Sorry, I can't help it." Chuck gave her a weak smile. "I don't care if you don't remember me, Sarah. I still love you. Just come home safe and we'll take the memories as they come."
Sarah smirked. "Well, I sure don't intend to live in the jungles of Argentina, so don't leave me stranded there."
Sarah looked somewhere off camera. "I gotta go now. We'll talk later, okay?"
The screen went black.