24 drove for hours, turning on and off a multitude of highways and side roads to keep the Institution from tracking her. She knew how effective they could be, but she also knew all their tricks. It was probably how 48 had kept his identity as M a secret for so long.
The sun was slowly sinking beyond the horizon when 24 decided to find a place to spend the night. She had passed most of the day avoiding thinking about her current situation, remembering how her irritation at 48 had previously made her act less rationally. With a betrayal as monumental as this, she was afraid her anger would drown her.
The small road-side motel was perfect for her needs. It was out of the way with open ground miles around it for an easy escape if the Institution tracked her there. Earlier in the day she had thrown out her phone and bought a new one, tamper free. It had been her first major step away from the Institution. For all her life, or what she could remember of it, 24 had never hidden anything from her superiors. Even when she had made a mistake on an important mission, she had never tried to cover it up. If she lost a piece of tech given to her, she replaced it with another. Now she was on her own and she felt lost.
There was a small convenience store down the road that 24 visited after she had gotten the key to her room. There were a few items she needed to pick up, food being her main priority. Even though she didn’t feel hungry, it would be important to keep her blood sugar steady and eat when she could so that if anything happened, she could react at her best abilities.
Some chicken and a bowl of salad was all she was able to eat. The events from the day were making their way past her mental barriers and threatened to overwhelm her if she didn’t take the time to process them. 24 got up and set traps around the room. As she went through her memories, she wouldn’t recognize the sounds of danger as quickly as she normally would. The traps would help with that. Next, she set a timer. She needed to be back on the road early the next morning to gain more distance. That being done, she settled herself cross-legged on the floor and closed her eyes.
The Institution first. 24 needed to understand her situation with them before she could even think about tackling what she should do about 48 and the others. It wouldn’t be easy though. The Institution was all she had, all she knew. What was she supposed to do now that it wasn’t guiding her? What was her mission, her purpose? It was all gone now. She would have to completely rebuild.
Who am I? I am 24, formerly an Agent working for the Institution. I was an assassin, a spy. I killed my targets without question or regret. I have no identity outside of what the Institution created for me.
What is my purpose? She thought back to what 48 had said to her before she left, how she desired the same things as him. Peace? Justice? She had thought that by being an Agent she was creating a better world. Was it still possible to find those ideals outside of the Institution?
What is my mission? It took her a little longer to decide this. Her missions had always been decided for her by some faceless shadow and given to her by her blank-faced handler. 24 no longer had the luxury of simply following orders- there was no one left that she trusted to give them. She would have to make her own. My mission is to create peace and balance in the world by protecting the innocents who cannot protect themselves.
Her next obstacle came from a lack of resources and knowledge of how to achieve this. Without the Institution, she did not have unlimited money or advanced tech. She had been trained to be a killer, not a protector. Besides that, the Institution would be after her, trying to kill her to keep her silent.
24 stood up abruptly and started pacing around the cramped room. There was only one conclusion she could think of, but it would mean conceding defeat to the one man she had sworn to never give in to. 48 had managed to make a new identity, a new purpose. From what she had learned in the mission briefing files, all of his actions had been to promote peace and justice, lining up exactly with her mission. He would know how to find trustworthy contacts and allies as well as how to find enough resources to fund her mission. If Detective M had been anyone but 48, 24 would have leapt at the chance. But as it was, 24 took hold of her phone and eyed it with distaste. But there was no other choice. She dialed in the numbers.
“This is Jack. How may I help you?”
“Jack? This is Nikki. I need to speak with Adrian. It’s urgent.”
There was a small pause.
“Nikki? Where are you?”
“I’m in a place that he can find me. Please, I need to speak with him.” There. She had said the codewords that would tell 48 that she was on his side. Even if Jack didn’t know about the situation, he would still relay that message back to Adrian who would know what it meant.
“I see. He’s not here, Nikki. He is setting up a rescue mission with some of his contacts for tomorrow morning. I’ll let him know that you want to talk to him, but he might not be able to until later tomorrow.”
“A rescue mission? For the missing agents?”
“No, those four have already been found. They are currently going through debriefing, but they don’t know anything about the Institution. Detective M is going after three children who went missing today. He thinks he might be able to get to them before they are shipped off to be brainwashed.”
24 caught her breath, battling her deeply-ingrained instincts to defend her former home. She succeeded but was drained from the effort. “Is he trying to do it alone?”
“He said he needs to distance himself from us and that this was the best way to do so. We have already supplied him with money and weapons, but he won’t let us do anything else. I’ll send him a message that you called, since he switched phones.”
24 could hear Jack muttering to someone else before Sarah’s voice rang sharply through the phone. “Nikki? Is that you? Oh thank goodness you are okay! Adrian, I mean Detective M, said that might not survive and I was so worried! Okay, I think I can direct you to where he is. You want to help him, right? I can track his phone to find him. It’ll take me some time since the phone he has is really high-tech and secure, but since I know what number it is, I might be able to get in.”
“Thank you, Sarah. I really appreciate it. How long do you think it will take you?” 24 sank slowly onto the mattress of the ratty bed. They knew. Of course they knew! They would need to be aware of the possible danger they were in so they could take steps to stay safe.
It was strange, though, to have someone genuinely worried about her. Didn’t Sarah know who she was, what she had done? Didn’t she fear that 24 would turn them in to the Institution?
A couple clicks ticked through the phone as Sarah started up her search. “Um, it will take me at least three hours just to break through the first firewall. After that it will be easier but still time-consuming. Maybe six to eight hours?”
“Good. Just enough time to get a nap in.” 24 couldn’t help but grin at the knowing laughs that she heard on the other line. They were all exhausted by the sleepless previous night.
“Go sleep then,” Jack commanded her light-heartedly. 24 could imagine him making shooing motions at her through the phone.
“Thanks, you guys. I hope I get to see you again,” she told them whole-heartedly. As an Agent she didn’t make friends, but maybe as Nikki she could.
“Goodnight,” they all chorused back. There was a shuffle, then Jack’s voice came through once more.
“Hey Nikki? I’m glad you’re back.”
“Me too, Jack. Me too.”
24 fell asleep with the phone tucked close to her chest.
A few hours later, she was up again, heating up the bagel she had bought the night before and pulling on a pair of durable jeans and a dark gray, form-fitting long-sleeved shirt. Not quite her usual attire, but close enough to make her feel a little more secure. Now that she didn’t have the safety net of the Institution to fall back on, anything that could make her feel somewhat close to normal would be needed to keep her sane, at least until she met up with 48. For some reason, he made her feel safe, even when he was annoying her in “Big Brother” mode.
She snorted, amused at the irony. The person who she hated the most also made her feel the most at ease. Life had a sense of humor.
In a matter of minutes, she was back on the road, heading toward Chicago once again. Sarah was going to call her in a few hours, and she wanted to be close enough so that the information wouldn’t be useless when she did arrive. 48 would only stay at one place for so long, and she needed to catch up to him sooner rather than later. He was going to try and rescue three helpless children, and she planned on being by his side when he did so.
24 was just entering city limits when her phone rang. Checking the number to make sure it was Sarah, 24 answered, pushing down on the gas pedal a little more. “Yes?”
“Where are you? I have his location and can lead you right to him.”
“I just passed the Monument Fountain, heading into the city.”
“Perfect! You are only a few minutes away.”
Nikki breathed out a prayer of thanks. It seemed that luck was on her side.
“Okay. Take a left on 4th Street, then a right on 27th.”
Sarah led 24 to a small apartment that seemed squished between two high-rise office buildings. It was almost half the size of its neighbors, but it seemed just as mighty because of it. 24 barely spared the time to lock her car as she ran through the revolving doors. Sarah had tracked 48 to the sixth floor. 24 took a split second to consider the elevators, then decided against it. The stairs would be faster.
She located the stairwell easily and pounded up the steps. He sneakers weren’t as high-quality as she normally wore, so her speed suffered as a result. It seemed to take agonizing minutes to get to the correct floor, although she knew any observer would marvel at her speed. It didn’t matter though. She was there.
24 composed herself in the space it took to open the door out of the stairwell and into the hallway, looking like perfection itself. Nobody paid her any mind as she strode confidently down the corridor searching for the right room. Sarah guided her to a room halfway down to the right: room 638. She knocked politely and waited for someone to answer.
“Yes? What do you want?”
She smiled sweetly at the peephole. “My name is Nikki. I’m looking for my boyfriend Adrian. He said that if I needed him, he would be here.”
The few passersby walking past hardly glanced her way as the door was opened and she walked through. No one cared about a clingy girlfriend.
48 was on her in an instant. “How did you find me?” He grabbed her by her shoulders which 24 easily slid out of. She raised her hands in protest. “Sarah found you. She tracked your phone.”
48 backed off, calming down as he did so. “The Institution didn’t send you?”
24 shook her head bitterly. “No. You were right. They betrayed me, tried to kill me. It was only thanks to your warning that I got out alive.”
48’s eyes softened and he put a hand on her shoulder that she didn’t try to shy away from. “I’m sorry,” he whispered.
She shrugged, not looking at him. “It doesn’t matter. Jack said you are planning a rescue mission?” At his nod, she glared at him, daring him to refuse her. “I want in.”
48 didn’t even hesitate as he agreed. “It’ll be good to have your help.” He turned to face the room where eight men had gathered. “Everyone, meet Nikki. My partner.”