Guardians

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Chapter 26

Argus Consulting

Washington D.C.

After work Russell had had a run-in with his ex-wife Amanda at the supermarket. She’d remarried, and she wasn’t shy about flaunting the fact, or that her new husband was more “successful” than he’d ever been. (A lobbyist for the pharmaceutical companies, it turned out. She was proud of the fact, but that just made him a shitbag in Russell’s book, and would have even if he wasn’t fucking Russell’s ex.)

Seeing her again, Russell realized his memory had been overly kind to Amanda. She seemed less petite and lusciously curvy than short and dumpy, though she probably hadn’t changed much. The eyes with which he looked at her had changed, however, and now he wondered how he could have lost his head over her so completely.

When she’d first walked out Russell hadn’t been able to get himself out of bed in the morning. He’d spent hours picturing her coming back through his door, tearfully begging his forgiveness, promising to make it all right – and picturing himself letting her do it.

But she never came back, and as the days turned to weeks and the weeks turned to months, he had started to accept the things he recognized intellectually, but rejected with every fiber of his being. That there really hadn’t been much there. That he wasn’t someone Amanda would have given a second look if she wasn’t on the rebound (and off her meds), while he’d made too much of an infatuation because he’d been lonely and frustrated for so long. That he’d desperately seized on any little thing to make him think otherwise, taking the most trivial gesture as proof of the deep and meaningful connection he had wanted to think they had. That he’d made excuses for her constantly, for the games and evasions and manipulations, for the distance that she had started putting between them almost right after she said “I do,” and that he’d been too easily fobbed off with the lame explanations she gave him whenever things didn’t seem right. And that he’d said and done plenty of things that he wasn’t proud of too, enough to make him admit to himself that he wasn’t blameless in all this.

The feeling of missing her had faded so completely that it seemed like something out of a bad dream, that feeling of being shattered by her departure something that happened to someone else because he couldn’t even believe he’d ever been that lost, wounded man. But a great deal of resentment remained. (Yes, he wasn’t blameless, but he’d sure as hell caught the worst of it, and there were a good many times when she’d been unnecessarily cruel, as if she’d hoped to drive him away and put the burden of ending it on him.) They said that time healed all wounds, but on those occasions when he still thought of her he remembered how slowly it worked, eroding the feeling bit by bit instead of sweeping it away. Just for his sanity’s sake he wished it had been different, but it wasn’t, and the feelings of hurt came to the surface of his mind as they spoke.

Still, he was civil during the exchange, polite, didn’t make a scene like he once might have, saving the depression and restlessness the meeting filled him with for later. Still feeling those things that night he accepted an acquaintance’s ill-timed invitation to go clubbing. It proved disappointing, as he’d had to know it would be. (Lounge pick-ups were never Wright’s strong suit. When it came to charming women, frankly, he didn’t have a strong suit, and going out to do it the same day he had met up with Amanda was an especially bad idea.) Now all he had to show for it was a headache he chalked up less to the few sips of alcohol he’d drunk to be sociable than the one-two punch of three hours of sleep in combination with the next-day grogginess sleeping pills always induced in him.

“Good morning Mr. Wright,” Erin said, her usually pleasant voice echoing unpleasantly in Russell’s head. “Mr. Jorgenson wants you to go to his office right away.”

He’d hoped to ease into his day, but it looked like he wouldn’t get his wish. Still, Russell nodded and headed to Jorgenson’s office as ordered. Elisabeth was already there, sitting in one of the two chairs in front of Jorgenson’s desk. At his boss’s invitation Russell settled into the other and then listened as he skipped the pleasantries to present them with copies of a report from their people in Moscow, then tell them about a magic box that could destroy a world.

Russell had heard the story before, but never taken it seriously. After all, they’d picked up quite a collection of interesting wreckage over the years, but never anything the least bit useful. Russell had seen the Roswell ship, but he also knew the U.S. Air Force wasn’t flying the thing around the Nevada desert. It hadn’t even reverse-engineered a single invention from it, not even something as easy as Velcro. The thing just sat there, along with a good many others they’d recovered. Occasionally someone looked in on the Roswell craft and its cousins, thinking they’d be able to coax a genie out of the magic lamp, but the things never yielded any secrets.

As far as he was concerned, the reason was the simplest conceivable: human beings were just unequipped to comprehend the artifacts of a culture a million years older than their own, especially one that had evolved on another planet.

All by itself, that made the chase after extraterrestrial artifacts fetishistic cargo cult bullshit, deepened by the inevitable opportunism and rumor-mongering. And in his view it went on only because the men controlling the purse strings were mathematical, scientific and financial illiterates. Given the bent of the security state’s masters, they were especially susceptible to promises of a world-changing super-weapon, like the promise they’d just heard about the ellipton.

And this story, even more than most, felt like a tease. He’d never believed in psychic powers, and his contacts with “psychics” during his time at Langley had only made him more skeptical. Even setting that aside, it seemed far more plausible that someone in the Kremlin had dreamed up this story than that extraterrestrials had built a psi-powered weapon of mass destruction capable of redressing the strategic balance and conveniently left it to be discovered in the Soviet Union at the height of the Cold War.

But now Jorgenson was telling him that the box might have been in play, and that finding out what the deal with it really was had become the company’s biggest priority.

“You didn’t see that coming,” Elisabeth said after they were dismissed.

“Yes, and no,” Russell owned. “Yes, I expected us to hear wild stories. No, I didn’t expect us to run into one quite this wild.” And he certainly hadn’t expected to see Jorgenson give the story such credence.

Still, Russell appreciated the problem they faced if there was even the smallest chance the ellipton worked as advertised. And anyway, there wasn’t anything more exciting happening. Besides, even if there was absolutely nothing to it, this was the job he’d signed up for – making sure. Unbidden, his run-in with Heinrich came to mind. Might he have heard something about this, and shown up in Kincaid’s at exactly that time, because his people were chasing the same prize?

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