For the moment, silence hung in the room. That wouldn't last, Niki knew. Soon, Robert Feyler would shout at her some more and he'd probably continue on for hours if he could. It was the day after Darius had rescued Viceroy, and Niki and the others were back home. Most went about their usual activities, while others recovered from injuries and Niki was being yelled at. Niki looked at Barton, hoping he would step in and stop Feyler's rant.
"You let him escape!" Feyler said, shouting the same thing for the twelfth time. Niki had been counting since she realized he would yell that many, many times. "You had him right there and you let him escape!"
"In case you didn't realize it, Laporte isn't your friend! He might have hugged you, but he shot several other of our people! You're damn lucky we only lost one life last night! Your mission was to kill or capture, not hug him and ask what he's been doing for the past two years! If any other Anitreh die because of him, it's on you! Just like Connor Samson's death is! You had the chance to stop him and you let him escape!"
"That's enough, Robert," Barton said softly. Despite the great difference in their volumes, Barton's voice was clearly heard and Feyler listened. "Maybe things didn't go quite as planned – "
"Maybe?" Feyler interrupted. "There's no maybe about this!"
"But we did get some useful information," Barton said, ignoring the interruption.
"No information is worth the life of one of our people," Feyler interrupted again.
"No," Barton agreed. "But we could hardly expect Ms. Sokolof to shoot one of her friends, so we should at least consider how valuable the information is before blaming her for the death of Mr. Samson. I don't think you can put that one on Mr. Laporte, either, since he was killed while Ms. Sokolof was talking to him. He didn't come alone."
"Only according to a few statements," Feyler argued. "Which came from very stressed individuals who could have remembered it wrong."
"There certainly was another person with him," Barton said firmly. "Someone with an affinity for altering the mind. It explains quite a bit about how Mr. Laporte was so easily able to sneak inside the compound. And why, interestingly enough, there were so few casualties."
"One is too many."
"But if Mr. Laporte is as bad as you say, why weren't more killed or injured? Wouldn't he have simply come in shooting instead of hiding and sneaking around? Once the data is analyzed, it'll be interesting to see how many injuries were really because of him. In fact, this is one of the valuable pieces of information we learned last night."
"That he killed only a single person? And injured eight others?" Feyler frowned. It was obvious he wasn't following Barton's thinking, but Niki thought she knew where he was going.
"Yes," Barton said. "Anytime we discuss Mr. Laporte, one of the arguments to simply killing him is that we don't know for sure that he's really as big of a threat as the circumstantial evidence would have us believe. You think that Mr. Laporte is responsible for going into Anitreh compounds and killing every last person there. If that were true, why didn't he do that last night when he had more at stake?"
Barton fell silent, and let Feyler think about that one. "That is something to consider," he finally admitted. "However, I still don't believe he's done absolutely nothing wrong. He looked at Niki when he said that last part.
"Ms. Sokolof," Barton said, also turning his attention to her. "I'd like to know how you felt about Mr. Laporte last night. At any point, did you feel you were in danger?"
"Only for a second," she admitted. "But when he didn't shoot me right away, I knew he wasn't going to. And there had to be someone else there. Because we heard gunfire when he was talking to me."
"Speaking of that, what did you talk about?" Feyler asked. "Our audio surveillance conveniently went out just after the lights went on."
Niki looked down quickly, hearing the suspicion in his voice. She had indeed interfered with the recording device in the room. She didn't know what Darius might say, but in case he said something sensitive, she thought it would be best if it were kept between the two of them. And Barton, who she planned on telling the entire truth to.
"Not much. He was surprised to see me. I said I missed him. Then I tried to talk him into staying. He said he couldn't and that's pretty much it."
"The conversation isn't important," Barton said before Niki had a chance to think of something to say. "What is important is the fact that Mr. Laporte had no intention of hurting her. This makes her extremely valuable. Ms. Sokolof could talk to him. Perhaps get the information we need. If worse comes to worst and he does need to be eliminated, we'll have the perfect weapon to use against him."
"Don't argue," Barton told her. "Later."
"You're dismissed, Sokolof," Feyler said after considering Barton's words.
"Yes, sir," Niki said. She turned around and headed out the door, going slow enough to hear Barton's words.
"I'll find you this evening to discuss our next action. For now, you should get some rest."
Niki knew he was right – she had hardly slept at all while flying back from the middle of nowhere Wyoming to Seattle last night, and since getting back, she hadn't had to sleep. But she just didn't feel ready to sleep yet, even if she felt tired. Instead, she decided to go for a walk. She didn't plan on going far or even outside the building, but just going up and down the stairs seemed like a good idea.
The Anitreh were living and working in a good size office building. They used to have a much nicer place in Winnipeg, but ever since Anitreh killings had started, they'd hidden all personnel in secret locations. The place in Winnipeg had been much like a college campus with everything spread out with plenty of open spaces. Now, they had put as many people into a single building as possible, and it led to feelings of claustrophobia. Fortunately, Niki could go outside and walk around the city. The higher ranking Anitreh couldn't. They couldn't take the risk of being recognized and the secret of the building being let out. Perhaps that was why Feyler seemed eternally grumpy.
As she neared the bottom of the stairs, Niki realized she was hungry, having not eaten since the day before. There was a café on the second floor that she liked and she headed there to get a sandwich. Because they wanted to appear like a normal building, regular people were allowed inside, and could visit the different businesses on the first two floors, including the café, a convenience store, and a pizza parlor. They were all run by the Anitreh, mostly younger ones who had not yet completed their training.
Seating was limited in the café, but it wasn't too busy at the moment as it was still before the busy lunch hour. She sat in the corner as far away from the entrance as possible, almost glad to be alone. The only company she really wanted was Garm, but since they had to hide the fact that they were mostly Anitreh, he really wasn't allowed on the first two levels. One or two fylgja weren't suspicious, but if there were a bunch of animals roaming around, it wouldn't take long for people to figure out what the building contained.
She was halfway through her first sandwich when she saw someone approaching. Although no one besides Barton and the captains knew what had happened between her and Darius the previous night, there were enough suspicions that she'd had the chance to take him out and didn't. Because of that, the other Anitreh that had been there hadn't wanted to talk to her, and she feared that one or more of them were coming to give her trouble over it.
She looked up from her meal, ready to have some harsh words, when she saw a friendly face framed by long, dark brown hair. "Oh. Phoenix. It's you," Niki said, relieved it wasn't trouble.
"Are you expecting someone else?" the twelve year old girl asked.
"No," Niki replied. "Just had a rough night and my brain isn't working right. Something up?"
"Nah," Phoenix replied. "I'm supposed to meet Markus here in a while and I saw you here so I thought I'd say hi."
"Oh, well, you can wait for him with me if you want. You hungry?" Since Phoenix wasn't officially an Anitreh yet, she couldn't get free food at the businesses. Her meals were given to her in the cafeteria on the third floor, and the food wasn't quite as good.
"No thanks," Phoenix said. "Hey, Niki. There's this rumor going around."
"You shouldn't listen to rumors."
"Well, this one's interesting. Everyone's saying something big went down yesterday. Like, really, really big. And they say it was about Darius. Do you know anything?" Phoenix whispered Darius' name, despite the fact that no one else was sitting near them. Still, Niki thought it was a good practice to not talk about him loudly – most Anitreh didn't like him and it might cause Phoenix trouble if others knew she still liked him.
"No," Niki lied. She knew that Phoenix had been close to Darius and he had treated her like a little sister, and when he left, it had hurt Phoenix deeply. "I haven't heard anything like that."
"Come on, Niki!" Phoenix whined. "I won't tell anyone else. Just Markus, and you know he can keep a secret!"
"Phoenix, even if I did know something, I really couldn't tell you. But how's training going? Learning anything fun?"
Either Phoenix realized she wasn't going to learn anything from Niki or she was very easily distracted, as she quickly started talking about her training. Niki listened to her talk while finishing her sandwich, but her mind wasn't completely focused on what the preteen was saying until finally something got her attention.
"Wait. What was that you were saying?" Niki asked, sure she hadn't heard right.
"I was being tested for my affinity," Phoenix said, rolling her eyes, obviously thinking that Niki hadn't been listening. "And they said that I might have three."
"Yes, Niki. Three. As in two more than you."
"They must have made a mistake," Niki said, mostly to herself. The vast majority of Anitreh only had a single affinity, and a very, very few had two. As far as Niki knew, there were only four living that had two affinities. Three was simply unheard of.
"They did the test a million times," Phoenix said. "So they said they're just going to let me train in all three and see if I really do have them all."
"Well, that's great for you," Niki said. "What affinities are they?"
"Mind, ice, and air," she said, making a face. "I really hoped I'd be fire or lightning. Actually, I really wanted lightning like you. It's definitely the coolest."
"Well, I certainly think so," she said with a slight smile. She held up a hand and let a small spark fly from her fingers. "But you'll be able to read minds. That's usually a little more useful than messing with electronic devices."
"Hey Phoenix! Hi Niki!" Niki looked and saw a boy the same age as Phoenix walking over. Markus Colven was another trainee and the younger brother of her late friend Ian. Because of that, the boy had spent quite a bit of time around Niki while growing up. When Ian died, they'd grown even closer.
"You're late," Phoenix said.
"I got held up," Markus said. "Had to stay after class for a bit. Hey Niki, I heard that – "
"No," Niki said quickly. "If you're asking about a certain rumor, Phoenix already asked, and I don't know anything about it. But I hear affinity testing's begun. You get tested yet?"
"Yeah," he said. "Got air. I wanted fire."
"Everyone wants fire," Niki said, shaking her head. "But you and Phoenix will be in some of the same classes together, right? So that's good."
"I don't know," Phoenix said. "I heard I might have to be in special classes so I can fit all three in, but maybe I can do regular air classes with Markus and do the others as special ones."
"Hopefully it works out for you," Niki said as she stood up. "I've got to go, but it was nice seeing you two."
"See ya, Niki," Phoenix said. "We got a test to study for."
"Yeah," Markus said with a sigh. "Stupid history."
Niki left the kids to their studying and headed back upstairs to her quarters. Now that she'd eaten, she really wanted nothing more than to sleep, preferably for a week straight, but she knew the best she could hope for was a couple of hours. She got to her room and was asleep almost as soon as she was in bed.
A low bark woke Niki from her slumber. She opened her eyes to see Garm standing over her. Once he saw that she was awake, he ran over to the door and then back to Niki. By that time, she was sitting up, but hadn't yet gotten out of bed. Garm ran over and jumping on the handle, he managed to open the door with a few tries. Niki stood up just as Barton entered the room.
"Sorry," he said. "Did I wake you?"
"Garm did that," Niki said. "Although I suppose you were the reason he did that. So what's up? Feyler planning on throwing me out?"
"I'm sure he'd like to," Barton replied. "At least right now, but he'll calm down in a few days. He realizes that we got a fair deal out of what happened, but he doesn't want to admit it. Now, what was your conversation with Mr. Laporte about?"
Niki told him exactly what was said, not leaving out any details. When Barton had told her to disrupt the audio equipment, she had agreed she would tell the full truth to Barton, no matter what Darius said. And with his abilities, he would know if she lied and could pry the truth from her mind if he wanted to.
"The only thing that was weird was when he said that we'd done something," Niki said. "The Anitreh, that is. I don't know. Maybe he thinks that we did something wrong?"
"Hmm…" Barton remained silent for several moments. "It is a hint to his motivations, which is the one thing that's always eluded me. Unfortunately, we do need to ask him what exactly he means, but I've got some better ideas now."
"So what do we do now?" Niki asked.
"The captains are still having a disagreement. The lines are still drawn the same way when you attended the meeting. I don't want to sit around doing nothing, but there's not much we can do at this point without risking too many lives. Waiting for our agents near him to give us information seems to be one of the few things we can do."
"What if I go to him?" Niki asked. "Just me and Garm. I can tell him I want to know what he has to say about the Anitreh. He won't hurt me."
"That plan has already been proposed," Barton said. "Feyler has not agreed to send you."
"Why not? You can override him!"
"I could. But he does have some good points, and it puts you at a great risk. Even if he is displeased with you, he's not going to put you at unnecessary risk."
"But he won't hurt me," Niki protested. "I can go in, get the information we need and get out!"
"He didn't hurt you last night," Barton corrected her. "There's no telling what might happen if you approach him on his own territory. Let's say he tells you everything you want to know and then you try to leave. What if he can't let you come back to us with that information? We all suspect he's not working alone. What if one of the others finds you? What if he convinces you to join him?"
Niki opened her mouth to argue, but she soon realized she had nothing to say. She knew, somehow, that Darius wouldn't harm her no matter what, but she had no way to convince anyone else of that. She couldn't guarantee that she wouldn't end up joining Darius if she learned something truly terrible about the Anitreh. And even she had to admit that the others Darius worked with could be a problem.
"So we're not going to do anything?" Niki asked.
"We will be planning," Barton said. "The captains and I will continue to discuss possible courses of action. I will keep you in the loop with that as much as possible. In the meantime, you will prepare for the worst case scenario."
"That we need to kill Darius."
"But I can't – " Niki started to argue, but Barton held up a hand to silence her.
"If we have undisputable evidence that Darius is indeed responsible for the killing of hundreds of Anitreh, will you still defend him?"
"I…" Niki wanted to tell him that she'd stand by her friend no matter what, but deep down, she knew that if he really was responsible, she wouldn't be able to. As much as it would pain her, she would have to accept that his death was necessary.
"You don't need to answer that," Barton said. "However, no matter what happens, I want a team of Anitreh to be prepared for whatever needs to be done. Whether that be killing him or delivering flowers, you will be ready for it. You will be in charge of this team."
"Me?" Niki asked, sure she had missed something. She'd only just been elevated to a full Anitreh two and a half years ago. That wasn't nearly long enough to be given command of a cleaning crew, much less a strike force.
"It's a choice many might question," Barton admitted. "I have my own doubts, however, these are very special circumstances and because of your history with Darius, I believe you are the best possible choice."
"Uh…" Niki couldn't think of what to say, so finally, she just blurted out, "Thanks."
"The first thing you need to remember is that this is a secret. Lilla and Kimberella are the only others that know about this. Eventually, the other captains will know of the team, but even then, there will be certain details that you can only discuss with myself or Lilla and Kimberella. The first thing you need to do is select a team of as few Anitreh as possible who you feel will be the best for dealing with Darius. I will do everything I can to make sure your list is approved."
"I don't even know where to start," Niki admitted. When Barton said he had doubts, she hoped she'd be able to show him that she was more than capable of handling whatever he threw at her, but she didn't think she could manage even the most basic task.
"I think you will figure it out. I'll send you the materials you need to make your selections and with that, things should come together. Don't over think things."
Niki nodded, although she already had started to think about how she would possibly go about the task that Barton assigned her. Still, she knew that Barton was right and she'd get things together, but at the moment, it seemed like far too big of a task to handle.
"You'll be fine," Barton assured her again. He then proceeded to tell her the rest of what her assignment would include, and Niki wasn't so sure she'd be fine.