Guardians

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Chapter 14

London, U.K.

The situation in Lithuania changed out of all recognition in the weeks following the coup. A lot of the familiar faces vanished as Soviet functionaries and soldiers departed. New ones appeared as more and more foreign governments, the Soviet Union among them, extended official recognition to the Lithuanian government and opened up embassies in the capital.

Britain established its own in October, and Emma wasn’t sure how useful either she or Clayborne would be for much longer after that. They hadn’t been informed about a change in their status, but she attributed that to caution through a transitional period.

One thing was certain, however. The government wouldn’t go on funding the intelligence services at their Cold War levels, and Emma expected the SIS’s Eastern European activities to take a particularly hard hit. They still had to worry about organized crime, and ethnic conflict, and even what the Russians and Germans might get up to in their old stomping grounds, but it just wouldn’t be the same as when the Soviet empire had seemed to be the locus of all the evil in the world.

Emma wondered if she shouldn’t have read the writing on the wall when Gorbachev took over and pursued a different area of specialty, Latin America or the Middle East perhaps; studied Spanish or Arabic instead of Russian. True, she didn’t care to spend any time in a place where she’d have to wear a chador, but sunny Latin America might not have been so bad . . .

She had plenty of time to think about that when she headed back to London on holiday in January. After disembarking from her plane Emma collected her luggage and caught a taxi. The driver took her north on Tunnel Road and turned right, onto the M4 along which they headed east toward central London, and her apartment in Clerkenwell.

Sitting in the back of the car it seemed to her that the weather wasn’t the only way in which the place seemed warmer. There was a comforting familiarity about the streets she’d once driven through every day on mental autopilot.

Her first night back in town she met up with some of her old friends at an Indian restaurant in Lambeth. (Good curry was another thing she’d missed while abroad.) Liz was working for the BBC and married, with a baby now. (She had pictures, of course.) Jane was working in the City, and planning her wedding. (She invited Emma to be a bridesmaid, and Emma readily agreed.) Cheryl was starting her medical residency.

In short, they all seemed to be leading the most conventional, bourgeois lives. Even where things didn’t seem to be going as hoped, their problems were conventional, bourgeois problems.

The next day she visited mom and dad in Maida Vale. Emma found herself thinking about the things they got to enjoy that she’d been doing without for quite some time: relationships, family, a comfortable home, old friends. First World, big city amenities of the kind her overseas posting hadn’t been able to offer her.

Emma thought about how she’d ended up working for SIS in the first place. She’d wanted to see a bit of the world, and she was good with languages, so she went to college planning to pursue a career in the Foreign Service. A Secret Intelligence Service recruiter approached her as she was traveling that path. He seemed to think she was suited for a different kind of work, and made her think the same. He said she’d see things she’d never get to just sitting on embassy row, and it sounded more exciting than processing visa applications. She’d always seen the movies knowing they weren’t to be taken seriously, but she supposed some of their romanticism about intelligence work got into her system all the same.

Still, she didn’t regret it. She thought she’d done some good, and her experience certainly hadn’t been all bad. Besides, despite what her mother had told her, she was sure that her life was still beginning. Emma decided it couldn’t hurt to brush off her c.v., but first things first. She returned to her apartment, in a building that seemed palatial next to her residence in Vilnius, drew a hot bath and climbed into the big tub where she could sprawl as she hadn’t been able to do for the past year and a half.

When she emerged from it again she noticed the light on her answering machine. Emma played the message and was surprised to hear it tell her to report to work the next day at nine A.M.. She wondered what was up. When she arrived at headquarters and was told to proceed to the office of the assistant to the deputy chief of the Service the mystery only deepened. She didn’t have a clue as to what he might have had to say to her, but she went along all the same.

George Browning was there behind his desk, with her file lying open on top of it. He asked her the standard questions, and she gave the standard answers. Then he closed the file and asked some other, less standard questions about her time in Lithuania, which she answered as best she could.

Apparently satisfied, he told her what she’d eventually expected him to say.

“With the normalization of our relations with Lithuania, the operation in which you were involved is presently being wound up. This raises the question of your next assignment.”

Then he said something she didn’t expect, asking her if she’d ever heard of a Thirteenth Directorate of the Soviet GRU – the Main Intelligence Directorate.

“No sir, I’m afraid not,” she replied honestly.

Most people aren’t aware of it, he acknowledged. Directorate Thirteen handled a number of sensitive portfolios, including the Soviet armed forces’ forays into the paranormal, he explained. Their experiments in the use of psychic powers, for instance, were overseen by this organization. They had also been responsible for the Soviet Union’s researches into the areas of Unidentified Flying Objects, Unidentified Submerged Objects, and extraterrestrial life –

Emma wondered why Browning was telling her this, but continued to listen dutifully.

He told her that the Soviets had amassed a sizable stock of artifacts relevant to the latter area over the years.

“You mean . . . alien things?”

It was the common view, Browning allowed, even granting that there was no certainty about the origin of the items.

Emma wondered if Browning was having fun at her expense. She’d never heard of him doing that sort of thing, but she didn’t know what else to make of their conversation. Up until this meeting she’d never thought UFOs were an area of really serious investigation for the British government, or for anybody else, a few cranks and weirdos aside – people who watched too much Dr. Who growing up and went to science fiction conventions.

However, Browning informed her about an American investigation into Russia’s program, which she would be joining, officially as a private individual who had retired from British government service. Her instructions were simple: do her job, but keep him posted should anything interesting turn up, conditions permitting.

In other words, she would be spying on the Americans, an idea that once would have shocked her. After all, even if they were technically part of a non-governmental effort, these were still the closest allies Britain had in the world.

Still, she’d learned that colleagues did not always cooperate as well as they should have, whether people in the same organization, agencies working for the same government, or allied governments, which saw still that much more divergence in their interests. And this area was an especially problematic one, Browning explained. People tended to be exceptionally careful about materials of this kind, and no one trusted anyone else, everyone suspecting that even their closest friends were withholding big secrets.

But it only made the situation all the stranger, and when she had the whole of the assignment in front of her she wondered if she was being punished by being sent off on a snipe hunt. Still, she couldn’t imagine what her offense had been. The fact that she would be working under Browning directly also made it seem unlikely that this was some sort of internal exile within the organization. Despite Emma’s impulse to question her orders, there was nothing for her to do but to get on with them, bidding earlier than expected goodbyes to everyone and catching the next flight to D.C..

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