From Richard III:
Shall I be tempted by the devil then?
Yes, if the devil tempt you to do good.
Just after their stop, about ten miles north of town, was their first roadblock. Her only knowledge of things military being the insurgents and light infantry that opposed them in the mid and southern isles of the Philippines she did not recognize what looked like two small tanks with a half-dozen jeeps and Hummers, most with machine guns. Concrete highway diverters were arranged to slow and channel traffic for inspection. She noted that Rupert took them off to the right, away from the other cars and trucks. He slowed and stopped, putting his window down as he did. Three men, in camo, two with machine pistols, came forward. Their glance at the decal on the car’s door was obvious.
“Afternoon!” Rupert called, holding out his badge and paperwork with his left. “How are you gentlemen?”
“Just fine,” the one not carrying a gun replied, taking the badge and papers. “Could you lower your back windows, please?”
“One driver and two female passengers,” Sylvia heard his mutter as he moved to the behind them. Without being asked Rupert opened the trunk. After a pause it was slammed shut.
“Thank you for your patience,” the man said, returning Rupert’s materials. “Have a good day.”
“Y’all, too! Thanks for your hard work!”
Rather than driving off, he pulled forward to allow those in their escort car the same treatment. Only when they were in the clear did they carefully accelerate on.
“Is everyone always so polite here?” Roberta asked, leaning over the seats.
Sylvia caught something odd flash across their driver’s face.
“Point One, Miss Roberta, is to always be polite to people pointing guns at you,” he said with a smile to soften his words. “Point Two… there are parts of ExComm that are, well, a bit too taken with their work. The rest of us try to make up for it, I guess…”
Sylvia wondered just what he might mean by that.
“In the time we have left,” Sylvia ventured, “is there anything…”
She saw him shaking his head.
“We’ve got a few more checkpoints before I get y’all to where I was told,” he said. “And I really don’t have the permission to go into details about ExComm.”
He took his eyes off the road just a moment to look at her.
“So forgive me, Miss Sylvia; I hope you understand.”
“Of course,” she replied, resting the fingers of her left hand onto his right knee for just a moment. Roberta growled. “And our stop is…?”
“Office of Deputy Director Stephens, of the Second Chief Directorate, just a few blocks from the State House… whups! Another checkpoint coming up!”
This one had no tanks. She used the time to consider his words: a second directorate implies a first. Sylvia wondered what their assignments were.
Finally leaving the highway they passed a mass of buildings off to their right.
“What’s all that?” Roberta asked. “It looks deserted!”
“University of Texas Austin, the main campus,” Rupert answered. “One of the largest single campuses in the world! Had, er, has its own ZIP code!”
“You mentioned earlier that it’s closed?” Sylvia asked.
“Just temporarily… until we can get everything sorted,” he agreed.
“Of course.” She deliberately put sarcasm into her voice.
Downtown was a mix of old and new buildings. Austin had profited from the tech boom that began in the late 20th Century but also chose to retain many of its structures from the 19th century… at least on the outside: some of the facades had, up until recently, contained some cutting-edge companies. The building that she and Roberta were taken too reminded more of those in wealthy Old Manila than anything in Manhattan. Taking up an entire quarter of a city block the structure was a bit like a fortress on the street side. Once through a gate into the interior court, she saw frenetic activity everywhere: men, mostly, she saw few women, ran from horses and motorcycles into the four sides of the building just as quickly as others ran out to take their mounts, whether machine or biologic.
“Something afoot?” Sylvia had to ask.
“Not at all,” he replied easily, pausing the car but not getting out, “this is normal. Y’all will be getting out here. Just head over to that door and ask for DD Stephen. Y’all’s expected!”
Roberta was already opening her door. Sylvia paused.
“And you, Rupert?”
“Back to Dallas tonight! Lots to do, Miss Sylvia, lots to do!”
The car was already accelerating away as she swung the door shut. She noted a few glances from those in the court. While not consistent, it looks as if their uniform is field grey pants, a collarless white shirt and a thin black leather overcoat. That has to be hot for central Texas… who chose that and why?
“Can we get something to eat first?” Roberta complained. “I’m hungry!”
“Hello, there!” called a man’s deep voice.
Sylvia turned about and looked up to the third of four floors. An older man with wiry salt-and-pepper hair with all-white at this temples had pushed open a window and was calling down to them.
“I could just make out what you said, young Miss Fernandez!” he continued with a smile. “I’ll have some food brought in! Go in that main door and have yourselves escorted up… and welcome to Extraordinaria!”
They watched his head pull back in. The window, like most, she saw now, stayed open. No air conditioning, she guessed.
Just inside a man with a rifle over his shoulder detailed another armed man to take them to… what was it? Yes: Deputy Director Stephens office. From what Rupert said in his little talk, this man is a cousin of Barrett’s. That blood tie could be more important than any law enforcement of Civil Service pension…
“<This… this is going to be political,” Sylvia continued in Tagalog, “so try to focus on eating and not talking, please.>”
“<You are so full of yourself sometimes! Fine!>”
Their escort rapped on the old wood door twice. The man they had seen from the courtyard opened it himself.
“No time or money for secretaries, Miss Fernandez!” he said to her start of surprise at having been read so easily so quickly. “Didn’t mean to upset you; I’ve been in the Texas Ranger Division my whole life. Reading faces is second or third nature to me now. Please, please, let me move some of these files so you two may sit!”
Sylvia had been in law offices in Manhattan and Manila where it was flatscreens and uncomfortable stainless steel chairs. This office looked like something out of detective B-movie from the 1940s.
“Computers not working?” she asked, waving for her sister to take the seat to the left. She saw him pause and look around as to what to do with the foot-thick stack of files in his hand. With a sigh he finally just set them on the floor in front of the window he’d leaned out to greet them.
“Less and less,” he agreed, dropping into his ancient wooden chair with an ominous creak. “A fine compromise, as our Director pointed out: with no one to maintain database integrity against the Chicoms, Russians, or Indians, paper is our most secure media right now.”
“That… that’s surprisingly sensible,” Sylvia agreed, having done something very similar while on Leyte.
“Where are my manners!” he suddenly called, standing back up. “I’m Kyle Stephens…”
Introductions were still going on when there was a kick to the door. Waving at Stephens, Sylvia opened it. They kick was because the homely older woman had her hand full holding a aluminum tray with various meats, cheeses, and vegetables. And a clear bottle with no label in the center. Without a word she moved into the office and balanced it onto a four inch stack of files in the midst of Stephens’s desk. Still silent, she left.
“Afraid to talk?” Sylvia smirked.
“Operational security,” the man replied with no smile at all. “We deal with thousands of lives – and deaths – daily in this building.”
“I see; my apologies.”
“Not at all,” he said pulling a drawer open at his right and producing three shot glasses. Those set before him, he took the bottle and proceeded to top them off. Seeing Roberta’s mouth watering, he smiled benevolently.
“Just a quick toast, young Miss! Then feast to your heart’s content!” he said, passing two of the glasses over. He lifted his glass but a cloud seemed to come over his eyes. Before Sylvia could ask he continued.
“Here’s to us!” he said, tossing back the entire glass.
Sylvia saw her little sister hesitate, not getting the social overtone here. With a flick of her eyes she indicated she should do what they do.
“I’ll drink to that,” Sylvia said, drinking the nearly two ounces – of vodka! – all at once. She clenched her teeth to keep it down. Her breathing back under control she leaned to whap Roberta’s back until she could breath again.
“From what I’ve heard you two are just back from the Philippines,” Stephens ventured. “How are things out there?”
“Duterte’s hand-picked successor continues to move from strength to strength,” Sylvia said, taking come sliced carrots and cauliflower to try to clear her palate. “It was only because of our family connexions that I was there to help prosecute some of the last islamist rebels.”
“However,” she continued, “the Chinese continue to press their claims on the reefs of the South China Sea. Given what we’ve seen of two days back in America, it may be there will no one to stop them anymore.”
“I’d say you are quite correct, Miss Fernandez,” he immediately agreed. “Your old country will fall under their hegemony. If Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan have any political leadership worth a damn I hope they are assembling nukes just as fast as they can, before they become provinces of the Middle Kingdom.”
Just able to start eating without getting sick, even Roberta looked up at this shocking declaration.
“And how was Dallas?” he asked, picking up a piece of paper from his desk. “Y’all had some trouble there?”
“The robbery attempt was of little concern,” Sylvia said with a look to her kid sister. “Alan, that is, Officer Rupert, told us that the city center is on fire and about to overrun by cannibals.”
“Oh, what a desperate time we live in!” Stephens cried in mock seriousness. Did the drink affect him? She thought not.
“And things in your new proto-state?” Sylvia countered, leaning forward just a little. “Armed men everywhere is an admission you do not have control of events.”
Hungry as she was, Roberta froze. After half a minute they watched the man retake the bottle and pour himself more, not offering them any. He took a sip and seemed to stare at some point just over their heads.
“ExComm, formally, has only been going for three months but in that time we’ve managed to put together the biggest gang of nasties you’ll ever see this side of Hell,” he began. “I, and several others that came over from the Ranger Division, have the experience that has seen us move into the upper positions with meteoric speed.”
He let his eyes come back to theirs.
“Although there is some overlap, the Second Chief Directorate exists to assist the Field Forces with maintaining our frontiers on the west, north, and east… by and large,” he went on. “I, and my men, thankfully have had little to do in this unfolding catastrophe before us.”
“From what Rupert told me,” Sylvia said, just picking up a piece of yellow cheese, “you should be focused on your southern border!”
“We are!” he said, taking a drink. “That, and the city cores are for First Chief Directorate and the… interesting mix of men we have there…”
His eyes drifted up again. From her times in courtrooms, Sylvia recognized a denial/coping mechanism.
“The methods of that Directorate are much… harsher than most people know. Can know.”
No one spoke as Sylvia consumed her small block of cheese.
“Mister Stephens? Why am I here?”
She saw him glance at the clock on the wall to his right.
“To speak with Director Barrett in fifteen minutes. He’d like to offer you a job.”
“What?!” Roberta finally spoke up.
“While I do know something about the legal side of suppressing insurgencies, I don’t see what I can do for your two Directorates – ”
“You’d be in the Third, as Assistant to the Deputy Director,” Stephens replied, his eyes coming back down.
“And what does this ‘Third Directorate’ do, mister Stephens?” she asked with some exasperation. Her jet lag was catching up to her ‘end-of-the-world’ tolerance.
“Counter-intelligence. ExComm already has a sword; it seems my cousin wants you as our legal shield.”