This is the first draft of a work-in-progress that will be updated chapter-by-chapter.
|~~ February 28, 2018, 23:15 hours ~~
~~ Location: Steinbach, almost 70 kilometres southeast of Winnipeg, Manitoba ~~
Pulling up the sleeve of his windbreaker, Ian temporarily removed his eye from the end of the high powered scope mounted to his PSG-1 rifle. A quick glance at the smartphone-like device mounted to the inside of his right wrist via a gray forearm brace revealed to him that it was exactly quarter past eleven.
He drew the sleeve back over what little skin he fleetingly exposed, trying to stop his teeth from chattering from the frigid temperature. He was no stranger to the cold - all Canadians were familiar with it, but that didn’t mean he didn’t despise it. He could have pulled up something as normal as current weather tracking for his location on the handy device that just told him what time it was, but right now he didn’t care for an estimate. It was too cold to be outside, so he morosely estimated the temperature to be somewhere between twenty and thirty degrees below zero. Without factoring in the wind chill.
He continued to stave off thoughts about how miserable his situation was by going over what he knew of his objective so far again.
His objective was a motel suite about two hundred metres from where he was crouched partially behind a tree, just inside the treeline. He moved his left eye back behind the lens of the scope of his rifle and trained it at the last ground floor suite of the Frantz Inn, a fairly dilapidated motel just two kilometres from the town’s eastern limits.
Ian’s target was a forty-six year old man by the name of Ralph Braga. Hailed from Campos, Brazil, immigrated to Canada in 2010 and attained citizenship in 2015. No spouse, no kids. Estranged from parents who remained in South America, and lived alone in Scarborough, Ontario. On paper, he was a research associate and toxicologist for Dynacare, a medical laboratory services company based in Brampton, Ontario. On the surface, he seemed of no value to the kind of people Ian worked for, but other sources working under the newly-formed Clandestine Operations Sector picked up communications between Braga and a known associate of “XIX”, a bioterrorist group believed to be operating in the United States.
Ian’s target wasn’t Braga per se; rather, it was what he had to offer to XIX and what he knew. He’d certainly gotten it drilled into his head by now that in his line of work, intelligence was as precious as gold. “Foresight is as much a skill as being able to shoot”, as his mentor had said on more than a few occasions already throughout his training. In fact, his mission here included explicit instructions - tacked on by the same woman who trained him rigorously every day for the last four months - to make zero contact with Braga. Ian was to acquire intelligence of what Braga was contributing to the XIX while leaving minimal traces of his peeking into the toxicologist’s affairs.
Ian had to admit - this wasn’t quite how he pictured his final ‘exam’ before being bestowed his field operative status. He’d imagined a lot more static targets in a recreated setting, perhaps some psychology puzzles in front of a computer, or being subjected to another polygraph test. This just seemed too practical. What if he failed this? There would surely be national and international ramifications should he fail in his objective.
That familiar, sinking sensation in his gut wracked him again. The stakes had become exponentially higher in the last forty-eight hours alone.
What if he couldn’t pull through here? What if he couldn’t find any intelligence more concretely linking Braga to bioterrorism? What if--
‘What if’. Damnable words that did squat to help him now. He was here already, and there was no backing out. It was sink or swim. His certification wasn’t the only thing riding on the outcome. Lives were at stake.
Ian refocused his attention on the stinging pain in his cheeks from the subzero climate surrounding him. Physical pain, in this case, was better than mental and emotional doubt. The aching of muscles and stinging of wounds could be overcome, but spirit couldn’t be mended as easily.
“Get it together,” he muttered to himself, keeping his aim as steady as he could at the motel suite labelled with a ‘10’ that, like much of everything else in his field of view, appeared a shade of green through his infrared optics.
The intelligence he was provided two days ago indicated that Braga was traveling from Brampton, Ontario to Regina, Saskatchewan by car. Ian had identified the target’s car, a navy blue 2017 Toyota Highlander, parked in front of the suite he was looking at right now earlier this morning. He’d kept his distance practically the whole day, downing several cups of hot chocolate at a table in a small local cafe across the street from which he surveyed the Frantz Inn. He’d seen Braga, a stocky man with a sheer buzz cut and sporting a grey business suit, leave the premises with his car at around ten-fifteen in the morning and come back roughly an hour later, carrying a briefcase that he previously didn’t have into the suite upon his return. Since eleven AM, there had been no other comings or goings from Suite 10.
Two quick, sharp beeps chirped in his right ear, damn near making him jump right up from his crouching position. He lowered his rifle stock to the snowy ground, leaning it against the pine tree’s trunk, and tapped the button on the side of the earpiece he was wearing.
“Go for Crimson,” he said in a low murmur, using his temporary callsign for this operation.
“You’re seventeen minutes late with a status update.”
Ian was almost certain who was reaching him before he picked up, but the sound of her voice made him straighten his back even as he knelt anyway. There was no mistaking that sharp cadence of general disapproval. The last few months had hammered that tone into his head. While the speaker wasn’t anywhere near shouting, her inflection and the context of her words may as well have sounded like a crack of a whip to Ian.
He’d forgotten the six-hour status update window.
“Fuck,” he said under his breath.
“Report.” The woman on the other end of the line said only this in that same curtness, though Ian was sure when they reunited after this operation was done, he’d get chewed out for forgetting basic responsibilities, like updating his supervisory field officer at the agreed intervals.
“Apologies, Azure,” he said, using his mentor’s assigned callsign for this operation. “Bit hard to think when you’re out here freezing on a stakeout.”
“I said ‘report’, not ‘bitch’.”
“R-right.” Despite the cold, Ian felt heat flood his face at the reprimand. He clenched and unclenched his gloved fingers in an effort to keep them from freezing off. “Currently conducting visual surveillance on the target's known location. No activity in the last… eleven hours and fifty-two minutes. Same as my last update.”
There was a faint grunt from the other end.
Ian expected more questions and demands for more information on his part, as she was likely to do back when he stumbled his way through her training regimens, but this once, she held back.
Out here, on his first field mission, Ian had no one but himself to decide for him how best to proceed.
She didn’t even ask him what his current plan was. Before signing off, she merely said:
“Don’t miss the next check-in window. Azure out.”
When the line went dead, Ian momentarily dwelled on how he’d surely get nagged severely even if he pulled through with his mission somehow. But if it was coming, there was no way around it.
After giving the situation some more thought, he had two options: to continue waiting for Braga to leave the suite so he could have a look at his business with relative ease, or to risk breaking in right now and acquire intel while Braga was hopefully asleep. It was either frostbite or outright blowing his cover.
If his mentor were at his side right now, she would surely make one decision and he’d go along with it as he always had, but that wasn’t the case this time.
Ian took a minute to consider the risks and rewards before eventually deciding to entertain option B: enter the suite now and hopefully gather evidence as to what Braga’s business with XIX was. He rationalized this as the better choice, since there was no guarantee that Braga would stay much longer in this motel if his destination was the next province to the west. And frankly, Ian wasn’t in the mood to stay outside another six hours until perhaps something remotely more exciting happened; frostbite was a certainty, but success through patience in this case was not. He’d hoped throughout the day that Braga would leave the suite again, but it seemed the man was keen to stay warm. Ian couldn’t blame him for that, at least.
He finally rose from his crouch, feeling some modicum of relief in his haunches after having been in that position for the better part of the past hour. Before he left the relative obscurity of the forest, he patted his jacket pockets to make sure he had his lockpick set, and his left thigh for the Walther PPQ that sat snugly in his holster. If he had to use his gun at all - and he didn’t like using it on people if it could be helped - the mission was most likely a failure anyway, but he still felt better having it than not.
Leaving his rifle and backpack underneath a thermal tarp he’d been provided that was designed to camouflage itself within arctic environments, Ian crossed the expanse of the field between him and the motel, his feet sinking deep into the terrain that swallowed him up to half his lower legs as he strode. Each step he took made muffled crunches as his boots repeatedly surfaced and buried themselves into the snow. There was no snowfall currently, so at least visibility wasn’t that poor, even if the gale blowing through town certainly didn’t help him in the slightest.
A two-minute trudge through nearly knee-high snow eventually brought him to the small parking lot on the south side of the motel. When his feet were on top of asphalt, he patted and shook his clothes to get rid of the snow that had clung to his jacket and pants. He crossed the parking lot once he was relatively snow-free, then stopped at the door to Suite 10.
A cursory glance at the bottom of the door revealed no light seeping through, but all the same, Ian reached into an inside pocket of his windbreaker and pulled out a black wire about a metre in length and slightly thinner than a standard phone charger. He straightened it out and attached the jack to a port right at the end of his wrist brace proximal to his hand. The other end of the wire, he held in his right hand while he gently pressed his ear to the wooden door. There weren’t any discernible sounds indicating the occupant inside was awake, so Ian felt reasonably safe with proceeding with the snake camera surveillance.
He took the camera end of the wire - no wider than the rest of the wire but with a rounded end that functioned as a miniature camera lens - and guided it carefully through the narrow gap beneath the Suite 10’s door. He pushed the lens no farther than a few centimetres in before booting up the accompanying snake cam app on his tactical pad. A visual feed appeared on the screen of his device.
Some slow panning revealed to him that a bed sat roughly centre of the square-shaped suite, upon which he spied a pair of bare feet hanging off the edge. From his limited viewpoint, Ian ascertained the layout of the room, noting everything he could see that he could search through once inside: the bedside dresser drawers, the coat closet right above the camera lens, the small study desk beside the suite television, and the bathroom directly ahead and past the bed. Once he’d surveyed the room more than a couple of times and formulated a search plan in his head, he retracted the camera and disconnected it from his brace, then stuffed it back into his jacket pocket.
He gave the doorknob and lock an almost passing glance before quickly identifying it as a simple pin tumbler type. Satisfied with his relatively quick assessment and the simplicity of the security he had to breach, Ian reached into his pocket and from a small cylindrical pouch, produced a tension wrench and a hook pick. He inserted the thin tension wrench into the key slot of the doorknob first, then followed with the pick.
It took him much longer than he would have liked - almost a full minute - before he counted five tumblers within the mechanism giving him one click each and the lock itself seeming to announce its defeat with another minute click. Ian stuffed his tools back into the pouch and pocketed it, then slowly turned the doorknob to check if his handiwork was successful.
The doorknob turned without any resistance, and about halfway to the point it would have yielded and opened the door, Ian breathed a sigh of relief. He undid his laces and removed his boots, leaving them right on the welcome mat outside the door; the lighter his footsteps while inside, the better. And it would not do to wet the carpet with his footwear.
He turned the doorknob all the way, being careful to turn it slowly to avoid making any noise. When the door was opened enough to allow him to enter, he slipped inside the darkened suite and closed the door behind him as quietly as possible.
When he was inside, he gave his eyes the needed few seconds to adjust to the dim lighting. There were no lights on in the suite, but enough outside illumination poured through the white curtains drawn over the window beside the door to give him an adequate view of the room. Moreover, his ears immediately picked up the sound of snoring coming from the bed not two metres to his one o’clock - a man’s, and from the sound the depth of each snore Ian could tell the man was likely in deep REM sleep.
As annoying as it was to hear, that meant he could breathe a little easier. Ian immediately tiptoed over closer to the bed to find Braga in a white undershirt and dark boxers lying flat on his back, his balding head tilted slightly toward the bathroom’s side of the suite on a pillow. It was a little difficult to make out the finest details of his face in the semidarkness, but from observing it from a couple different angles from a reasonable distance, Ian could place a match between what he was seeing and the face he was provided in the intelligence dossier regarding the man.
Ian turned his attention back to the other contents of the suite. He started with the nearest area to search: the one dresser standing to the left of where Braga slept. He pulled open both top and bottom drawers with the same slow and methodical pace he used to ease the door open, finding both drawers empty save for some complimentary Frantz Inn paper pads and a few pens.
Next, Ian crept over to the desk. He pored over the immaculately arranged desk, careful not to move the pen holder and other inn stationery there as much as possible. He pulled open the drawer and came up with nothing in it whatsoever.
Come on, he mouthed to himself. He slid the desk drawer shut, keeping his ears attuned to the pitch and speed of the sleeping man’s snoring. As long as Ian could hear that grating noise, he was still in the clear. If it so much as changed its rhythm or - if he was truly unlucky - stopped entirely, he could begin worrying excessively like he usually did. Until then, the most he could do was work as fast as he could in silence.
After a quick but thorough search of the small bathroom - during which Ian even resorted to lifting the toilet tank cover in response to not finding anything remotely relevant in the sink cupboard and the medicine cabinet - Ian was beginning to wonder if he had somehow overlooked something innocent but secretly important in his thus far six-minute search of the suite. He returned to the suite proper and ran his eyes over the whole suite again.
Where else would someone put documents? Or that briefcase he saw Braga carrying into the suite earlier today? He could try looking through Braga’s phone, but trying to crack a lock screen password wouldn’t be as easy as picking an old-fashioned door lock. It would take time, even with the program he could run via his pad. And ultimately riskier in the sense that it would be easier to leave a trace of his intrusion.
Ian’s eyes eventually darted to the bed, to Braga, and then to the pillows and sheets. Upon closer examination, he noticed now that he was standing on the other side of the bed from before, that the pillow Braga’s dozing head was perched on was slightly bent at a reverse U-angle from the side, as if--
Ian would have groaned if he didn’t have to keep quiet.
He shook his head frustratedly, then quietly knelt at the bedside. Braga’s face was turned more toward him now and he could faintly smell the scent of some liquor blowing his way as the man exhaled and snored. Gingerly, Ian leaned his face in toward the side of the pillow and made out part of a dark shape peeking out slightly from beneath the pillow. He recognized a portion of a zipper’s track glinting in the semidarkness, squashed partially by the man’s weight on the pillow.
This certainly was more than worthy of a peek into. If Braga was literally sleeping on it, then he must have a vested interest in the thing. The problem was infuriatingly simple, however: how to extract it from beneath his head without waking him up.
With no other options, Ian sucked in a breath and reached for the bag or case beneath the pillow. His gloved fingers eventually found purchase on the edge of the object, finding it soft and somewhat leathery instead of blocky and plastic. He painstakingly, gradually, began pulling out the bag while taking utmost care not to shift the pillow that Braga was using to pin it under. The process took Ian over a minute, at the rough middle of which Braga’s snoring stopped blasting in his face abruptly, making Ian reach instinctively for his pistol. To the operative’s relief, however, Braga merely turned his face toward the opposite direction, toward the side of the suite with the door leading outside, before resuming his hearty slumber.
Eventually, after holding his breath for what felt like too long, Ian managed to pull the object free of the clutches of the pillow. The satchel itself was light - too light that for a fleeting moment Ian wondered if it had been a waste of time to even extricate the thing in the hopes of finding information. Upon quietly unzipping the satchel, however, he found one black duotang with perhaps a dozen or so printing papers stuffed inside, held in place by the fasteners on the inside of the folder’s spine. Ian set down the satchel, flipped open the duotang, and took a look at the first page secured in place inside. Because it was too dark to read it without infrared optics, Ian took the duotang quietly over to the window to let some evening light shine on the page.
On the first page were two words in large, bold, block letters:
Suppressing the urge to speculate first on what this could possibly mean, Ian turned to the second page.
On the second page was what appeared to be the beginnings of a proposal of sorts. Ian was reminded vaguely of his latter years in high school, where he once or twice had to write up a rudimentary research paper into an emerging technology of his choice. From what he could see, the second page in the duotang outlined the importance and general applications of this Project FENRIR.
Ian could not afford to read the whole proposal given the time and place, but he did quickly run his eyes over the following pages, encountering several words and phrases that his instincts told him were of note, even if some of them escaped his full comprehension:
“...artificially engineered wolfsbane...”
“...successfully converted to gaseous form...”
“...symptoms consistent with natural aconite including...”
“...ventricular arrhythmias, asystole...”
“...post-mortem signs indicate asphyxia...”
Ian skimmed through the last few pages, which included supply and production plans, along with potential areas of deployment. The deployment section of the document did not indicate any specific places, but included snippets of the toxin being potentially able to affect “cities and surrounding ” which were marked with a red “Pending review” stamp. He was no expert on toxicology or plant biology, but if the higher-ups had agreed to send a field operative to extract information from Braga somehow, he felt that this was what he was looking for.
He searched hastily for any dates that would indicate a timeline of production or distribution of the toxin, but found none throughout the ten-page document. The only date present was on the front, which was a creation date for the document itself, listed as roughly a month ago, a few days before New Year’s. Above the date was the document creator’s name: Ralph Enrico Braga.
Ian looked over his shoulder at the slumbering form of the man who had allegedly composed this proposal. A burning sense of urgency arose from the pit of Ian’s stomach, making him clench his teeth behind his tightly pursed lips. He started reaching for the Walther in his left thigh holster but froze midway.
Could he do it? After what happened the last time he tried to shoot someone?
Just the memory of that event made his head swim and bile begin churning in his gut. He managed to keep whatever remained of his earlier meal from rushing up this time, but found that he could no longer even look at Braga.
Part of Ian felt a responsibility to attempt to solve a problem before it could become one, and the way he saw things, one would-be-problem was right there on the bed. Completely vulnerable.
But that wasn’t his objective. He was here to gather intelligence on Braga’s involvement with a bioterrorism threat based in the United States, not to play executioner.
The Reaper herself had been explicit with what he could and couldn’t do. No contact with the target. That meant that to Ian, Braga was practically untouchable. And if the Reaper of all people was telling him to exercise restraint, then Ian had almost no reason to take matters into his own hands here.
What if his inaction here wound up costing the lives of more innocents? What if the executives and analysts up the chain at the Sector overlooked something? Forgot to tell a field operative like him something that would give him more insight into what he should do? Ian could be the one person who could inadvertently decide between averting tragedy, or allowing it.
Ian looked back down at the front page of the document. The two words, “PROJECT FENRIR” glared at him in the soft, bluish evening light as if to challenge him into making the right decision about how to proceed.
But what was ‘right’?
Ian spent the next several seconds staring back at the project name before taking his TACPAD out of the dock of his wrist brace and bringing up the regular camera function, switching on the night vision function so that the images would be clearer. He grudgingly snapped two pictures of each page of the document in his hands, then when he had twenty images stored locally on his TACPAD, he created copies to the secondary backup drive in case something happened to the default, primary drive.
Follow orders. That was all he had to do. In the past five or so minutes, he’d completely forgotten that he was supposedly being tested. As much as this was a real operation with real stakes, Ian had to admit that as large as his responsibilities would be as an official C.O.S. agent, he was still on the cusp of being one. Sector Command would be highly unlikely to assign him a task that involved making field decisions that far-reaching.
Just follow orders. That was the long and short of it. Nothing more, nothing less.
Ian lightly stepped back over to the other side of the bed where Braga was still blissfully asleep, snoring away like a bear who’d just begun hibernating after gorging itself for the winter. Ian picked the satchel back up off the floor, placed the folder back inside it, and zipped the bag shut. Carefully squeezing the satchel back under Braga’s head without waking its owner proved to be just as challenging as pulling the bag out, but even as Ian strained one of his arms to lift the pillow slowly and slightly to allow the satchel to slide back under the pillow, Braga kept snoring without a break in rhythm.
Ian finally got back to his feet and strode quietly to the door of the suite. Before he opened the door and left as uneventfully as he had come, he spared Braga one last glance.
Was he doing the right thing?
He ultimately couldn’t find an answer during his last moments in that motel room. He stepped outside, laced up his boots, and trudged through the howling dark.
~~ March 5, 2018, 10:59 hours ~~
~~ Location: [Undisclosed], somewhere in Ottawa, Ontario ~~
Ian glanced up from his lap at the lady at the receptionist’s desk whom he’d spoken to briefly half an hour earlier when he checked in. She peered at him over the top of her computer monitor, sweeping a loose lock of her blonde hair back over her ear.
“Yes?” Ian realized a bit late that his voice croaked when he spoke, and he hurriedly cleared his throat to bring his voice back to normal. “Yes?”
“The director will see you now.”
“I see… Thank you.”
He rose from his seat on the couch in the waiting area, then walked tentatively over to the receptionist’s desk in the ornate furnished office. Unlike the rest of the underground facility, which was relatively drab and constructed with functionality over form, the office was constructed with mahogany walls and outfitted like a cabin interior. A couple stuffed moose heads hung on plaques from the walls behind and in front of him, while several lifesize portraits exhibiting a range of environments - from the Ottawa skyline to the Canadian Rocky Mountains - occupied the walls that did not have anything else decorating them. Ian had never been here before, and until he received a short message in his trainee communications account the previous evening, he never would have imagined he’d be here at all.
The young receptionist seemed to notice Ian’s uncertainty as he had stopped indefinitely at the side of her desk. She offered him a small, polite smile and waved an arm toward the large, wooden double doors in front of the trainee operative, just past her desk.
“It’s through those doors,” she said. Ian’s eyes darted to the rectangular ID badge clipped to the front of her crisp white blouse. The name “Cassidy Brewster” filled the space right below a head-and-shoulders picture of its owner.
“There will be another set of doors immediately past these ones,” Cassidy added once Ian met her eyes again. “Just knock on the second set when these ones have closed behind you. Director Lefebvre will unlock the inner doors for you.”
Ian managed an equally cordial smile despite his gnawing anticipation. Though the receptionist looked only slightly older than him, he responded with:
“I appreciate that. Thank you, Miss Brewster.”
Cassidy’s smile became slightly less professional and a little more coy, but only for a second. She gave Ian a tiny nod before turning her gaze back to her monitor and resuming her duties, her fingers striking the keys on the keyboard with a practiced pace.
Ian took another couple of seconds to check himself over. He was wearing one of the provided trainee uniforms he had gotten when he had started: a dark gray compression shirt with matching combat pants, and military-issue boots. The message he’d received through his comms the previous evening did not state a dress code for this abrupt meeting, but Ian figured wearing C.O.S.-issued clothing would be a safe choice.
He finally pulled open the first set of wooden doors in front of him and found himself in a small anteroom of some sort that stretched no more than two metres ahead of him before ending with an identical set of wooden doors. Ian took the three steps he needed to reach the second set of doors as the one behind him swung shut with a resounding clack.
He lifted his hand and formed a loose fist, then rapped on the door with a little apprehension still.
“Director Lefebvre. Ian Alcantara, trainee zero-five-seven, sir. I was informed you wanted to see me,” he called through the doors in a clear voice.
There was barely a pause before a deep, low voice responded from the other side.
“Come in, Zero-Five-Seven.”
A distinct click filled the practically silent antechamber. Ian took hold of the doorknob of the right half of the double doors and pushed the door in.
He stepped into a lavish office decorated with the same aesthetic as the reception area he had just left. To his left was an ornate bookcase spanning much of the length of the room. Books, folders, binders, and other office supplies lined its shelves neatly. To Ian’s right was a wall filled with portraits of previous Directors of the Canadian Security Intelligence Service. The most recent Director before Lefebvre, Michael Cousteau, was featured in the portrait closest to the door Ian had just entered. All in all, there were eight portraits on the right wall, each bearing the face of a previous leader of the Service who once sat at the desk ahead of the trainee.
“Previous directors of the CSIS, as you may well know,” came the baritone voice from moments ago.
Ian lifted his gaze to that of Henri Lefebvre, who was standing beside his desk instead of sitting behind it.
Ian had seen him only a handful of times before, once during the opening ceremony and address welcoming his batch of hopeful trainees, and on occasion during theory and practical instruction throughout the facility. This was the first time he’d had a private audience with the director, however, and Ian couldn’t help feeling an intangible weight perching atop his shoulders as he looked toward the man. He was just as tall and large as Chairman Chase Coste, with roughly the same burly build that was kept partly subdued by the black coat buttoned over a white shirt and a royal blue tie. While he looked to be the same age as Coste, the man gave off a less casual air. Ian had studied enough the past several months to get a general idea of what a person might be like depending on how they stood, spoke, or dressed. He could tell that the director was a no-nonsense man, contrasting Chairman Coste’s more visibly affable personality. Lefebvre stood stiffly, like a military officer observing his subordinates. While he wasn’t frowning or scowling, he did seem to burn his eyes straight into Ian’s, giving the fledgling operative a feeling of being X-rayed somehow.
Lefebvre inclined his head slightly, prompting Ian to straighten further his already straightened back.
“Director.” Ian felt the urge to salute or something similar, but this being a non-military organization, he held off. The man in front of him simply exuded that much command and authority. “Trainee Zero-Five-Seven, reporting as instructed.”
Lefebvre eyed the young man wordlessly for a few seconds, then walked leisurely back behind his desk. Ian’s eyes followed the man, raptly paying attention and afraid to miss a crucial detail.
“First and foremost: I have a question for you, Mister Alcantara,” Lefebvre said, stopping beside his empty desk chair.
The director placed a beefy hand over the top of the screen of the laptop that was sitting squarely in front of his chair, then turned the device around so that Ian could see a video of some sort playing on-screen.
“Tell me, what do you see here?” Lefebvre asked, lifting his hand off the laptop and striding back to the side of his desk.
Ian lowered his eyes to the laptop’s screen, taking two tentative steps forward for a closer look. On the laptop’s screen played a news feed of some sort, with watermarks and markings of a news outlet that was US-based rather than Canada-based. The camera shot itself was a little shaky, but Ian saw well enough what it was trying to capture: crowds consisting of countless people - mostly civilians - being beaten back and over by just as many police officers dressed in suppressive gear and carrying riot shields in one hand, jet black batons in the other. Ian had seen footage of riots before, but this one struck him as new nonetheless; instead of a rough picture of both civilians and authorities trading physical blows, the one on screen depicted a vastly one-sided battle. Almost no civilians could be seen fighting back - at least not with any easily visible enmity. Nearly all the police officers were bent over, striking their batons without a shred of concern for the men, women, and even children they were beating. The officers who weren’t busy beating civilians in the street were working together to drag away people who’d evidently been subdued to unconsciousness, their destination impossible to tell from merely watching the news feed. There was too much shouting, yelling, and crying blaring from the laptop’s speakers that it was futile to catch a coherent sentence or expression, even from the camera operator behind the lens, whom Ian could hear was speaking but remained difficult to understand because of the chaos in the scene. There was no reporter speaking in front of the camera - just whoever was carrying the camera that was capturing what was unfolding. Ian could only speculate what had happened to the camera operator’s companion.
Ian finally turned his eyes away from the screen once the camera locked on to the image of another officer practically caving a middle-aged woman’s head in with a baton while victims and oppressors alike scrambled around paying no attention to the brutality being shown on screen. Even without him looking, the audio from the news feed continued to provide Ian’s mind with an adequate picture of the scene.
“It’s… a difficult scene to witness, to be sure, sir. I’m not sure how else to describe it,” Ian said with a tightened jaw.
“Humour me one more time, Mister Alcantara. If you could put this scene into more concrete words, which ones would you use?” Lefebvre said in a slightly dispassionate voice.
Ian endured one more look at the laptop’s screen. The woman’s head was being blocked by some other person’s leg in the frame now, but the thin stream of blood flowing from where her head was was all too visible.
After a tense couple of seconds, Ian lifted his eyes to meet the director’s again. “Chaos, sir. Something that wouldn’t stand here within our own borders. Something that shouldn’t.”
Lefebvre clasped his hands behind his back and seemed to weigh Ian’s response carefully before giving the recruit a stiff nod.
“Indeed,” the man said. “This occurred yesterday afternoon in Syracuse, New York, a mere three hundred kilometres south of here. In addition, the Independent News Network, the crew that shot this footage, was shut down by the government for releasing this account online. All official traces that the news outlet ever existed - gone from the web, all within the span of a few mere hours after this event.”
Ian said nothing. He’d caught wind of this happening on his way to bed the previous evening, but with how many occurrences similar to this one that had been cropping up all throughout Canada’s neighbour to the south the past couple of years, he found it impossible to keep track of them all now.
The image of a police officer - a once universally understood symbol of peace and order - bludgeoning a defenseless protester to death refused to fade from Ian’s mind.
He braved a question, keen to avoid paying much attention to the news feed that was still playing on the laptop’s screen. The shot was now too shaky to watch intently as the operator of the device had either been caught struggling to go against the flow in a stampede of protestors trying to flee from the scene, or were then forsaking their journalistic duty to join those trying to escape the wrath of the authorities.
“What do you need from me, Director?”
Lefebvre appraised Ian for a moment, then walked over to the front of his desk and stopped within arm’s reach of the trainee. From this close, the man looked even more imposing and intimidating to Ian, who felt like he was staring up at a giant.
“We are living in dangerous times, Mister Alcantara. Just because occurrences like the one you saw have all been isolated within our American neighbours’ borders, doesn’t mean the same catalysts… the same sentiments, that have driven people with power to oppress and destroy those they had once sworn to serve and protect, can’t reach us here. Ever since the previous election, the political climate has become more polarized than it has ever been in recorded history. I don’t claim to know what is coming, but it is my job to ensure that if the clouds that have since hung over the United States comes to gather above our heads next, we will be able to weather the storm. But one man can’t possibly carry out such a Herculean task alone.”
Ian stayed silent as Lefebvre paused, not once moving his piercing gaze from Ian’s.
“I want to know one thing most of all, and I want to hear your answer straight from the source,” the director continued, seeming to hold Ian immobile by merely staring at the young man.
“Can I count on you to do what is necessary to ensure the continuity of our chain of command, and to protect those who can’t fight for themselves, when the time comes?”
Ian did not - could not - answer right away. The question itself carried an almost abstract tone, and seemed to demand that he give it at least a moment’s pause to consider before offering an answer. Doubly so that it was coming straight from the head of Canada’s national security agency.
“Director Lefebvre,” Ian began, “may I speak freely?”
“By all means.”
“I mean no disrespect, but are all trainees afforded this chance to affirm their promises before the Director of the CSIS in private? Is there a reason it appears to me that I alone am being asked this?”
If Lefebvre took any offense to the recruit asking him a question, he showed no sign. His expression did not do much changing - a visage of stoic and calculated calm.
He gave a small nod. “Of course. I am almost always a busy man, Mister Alcantara, but not so much that I never look into the finer initiatives within the organization - especially one as young and promising as the Clandestine Operations Sector. Naturally, I do keep loose tabs on how the training of recruits like yourself is coming along. If you did not know already, you are somewhat of an anomaly within your batch.”
Ian tried not to drop his blank but attentive look. He continued to follow Lefebvre’s movements as the director turned around to pick up a tan folder from beside his laptop, then turned back to face Ian with the folder now unfurled in his hands.
“Ian Esperanza Alcantara,” Lefebvre recited, his eyes lowered to what could only be Ian’s trainee file. “Age, twenty-two. Prior combat experience, none.”
At this point, Ian was unsure whether he was being praised or condemned.
“Enlisted for the Clandestine Operations Sector’s Agent Training Program in August 2017. Prior occupation: customer service representative slash mailroom staff member for XCel Technologies, based in downtown Calgary,” Lefebvre continued.
Ian wasn’t sure what the director was getting at still. He didn’t take the head of the CSIS for one to ridicule another person straightforwardly, but unless he was severely misunderstanding this situation, it was beginning to sound like he was being made fun of for his work history.
Lefebvre finally lifted his eyes again to meet Ian’s. “Endorsed by Chase Coste, Chairman of the Board, Clandestine Operations Sector.”
The director paused a moment, perhaps trying to see if Ian would say anything. When the recruit remained silent, he added something further.
“Assigned instructor, Erin Hendricks Kennedy. Instruction start date, September 5th, 2017. Instructor recommendation: fast-track training.”
It was beginning to fray on Ian’s nerves being made to wonder what the point of this standoff was. What was Lefebvre getting at?
“Are you aware of how long the training program for would-be operatives enlisting in the C.O.S. is, Mister Alcantara?” the director asked the young man.
That was easy enough to answer. “Six months, sir. An extra month is afforded in case any concerns or difficulties arise, at which point a review is conducted for any recruits who are struggling to perform adequately,” Ian answered promptly.
“Your first and last live mission to Manitoba last week was a decision the Board agreed to send you on as a final test to see how you would track a target with minimal support from us. How much information were you given by your handler, if I may ask?”
“A name of the target I was to locate and extract information from, sir. And part of an audio recording detaili-- suggesting, the involvement of the target with a known bioterrorism group in the United States.”
“Anything else? Other known contacts? Family members? Occupational information? A home address?”
“No, sir,” Ian said, “I was obliged to dig up all that information on my own.”
Lefebvre stared motionlessly at Ian, seeming to sniff out a possible lie, after which he shut the folder containing Ian’s records and replaced it on his desk behind him.
“Do you know why we’re having this part of the conversation with your history with us and your general performance, Mister Alcantara?” he asked frankly, to which Ian felt a strange measure of relief in hearing.
“Honestly, Director, I don’t.”
“Hmm. I’ll come right out with it, then.” Lefebvre crossed his arms over his chest and took a deep breath. “Your performance in training has been exemplary, Mister Alcantara. Almost too much so, in fact, judging from your prior experience… or lack thereof. Individuals like yourself, with similar unremarkable backgrounds and opposing performance, are not unheard of in military training programs, but they are rather… occasional, for the lack of a better word.”
Ian maintained his expression of static, rapt blankness as the issue here began to clarify itself before him. He was almost tempted to impress upon the director of the Canadian Intelligence Service the regimen his mentor had subjected him to every day since the last autumn, but ultimately his position as a grunt stopped him. Bemoaning his plight at that brusque woman’s idea of ‘training’ to his own boss would certainly do him no favours here.
Besides, it wasn’t for nothing. Neither was all of it painful.
“I’m not sure what to say, Director Lefebvre. If I am still permitted to speak my mind,” Ian said delicately, “are you expressing doubt as to my suitability as an operative?”
The director silently and motionlessly considered the question.
“Straightforward, I see.” Though the large man did not crack so much as a sliver of a smile, Ian thought there was a hint of gruff approval in his tone. “Yes, Mister Alcantara. I have doubts as to how well you will perform past training. As rigorous as the program regimen is here at the CSIS, it is not unheard of for some… lucky individuals to slip through the cracks. We believe we’ve caught some concerning signs about you before you even met your instructor here.”
For the first time since this conversation started, Ian couldn’t help twitching where he stood. It was only a minute movement of his body, but if his measure of Henri Lefebvre was any good, he’d bet the man had seen even that small detail.
“I beg your pardon, sir?” Ian said uncertainly.
“Do not look so surprised, son. We’ve dug into your history. It’s only routine. I trust you’re familiar with the tragedy that befell Calgary almost a year ago now.”
Ian’s jaw tightened more. He brought his hands behind his back slowly, trying to hide the shaking of his right hand and the balling of his fists.
“One of your early polygraph tests gave us an… inkling as to why you enlisted yourself for the program,” Lefebvre went on. He certainly did not sound different now than he did when Ian had walked into his chambers, but Ian nonetheless had to wonder if the man was enjoying trying to pry him open. “Now, I accept that the test is not completely foolproof. Technology, for all its benefits, is not immune to fault. But as the director of the CSIS, and now the C.O.S., I need to ensure I am employing the right kinds of people.”
Ian tried not to blink too frequently. After a few seconds of silence, Lefebvre took one resounding step closer to Ian, such that the director was practically towering over the recruit.
“Miss Kennedy is one of our longest employees at the CSIS,” Lefebvre said patiently, “I do not doubt her account of your performance the last four months. You are an asset, Mister Alcantara - one the C.O.S. has great need of. There is no question you have skills that we require. But skills are not all a viable agent must possess.”
Ian kept his eyes locked onto Lefebvre’s - to look anywhere else would be a mistake at this moment. The director’s eyes eventually narrowed, very slightly.
“I will ask you again, Mister Alcantara. Can I count on you to carry out the duties you were presented with at the start of your training? Will you make the correct decisions to ensure the preservation of our way of life, to safeguard the Canadian people, and to champion a cause greater than yourself? And, if need be, to sacrifice everything for the purpose for which the Clandestine Operations Sector was founded?”
Ian paused several seconds, absently counting his heartbeats that he could hear pounding in his ears. His fingernails were dug deep into the palms of his hands behind his back, and the trembling in his right hand failed to cease. At this point, it was only natural to assume that Lefebvre knew - or at least suspected - that Ian had his own reasons for being here. Ones that did not necessarily align with the organization’s objective.
Nevertheless, there was only one answer to give. Only one response that would get Ian any closer to what he wanted.
“Yes, sir.” He nodded his head a little after the pause. “I won’t let you down.”
There was another moment of silence during which Lefebvre observed the recruit with intensity, seeming to check for the last time if the young man would expose any cracks. A bead of sweat began to roll down Ian’s temple despite the air conditioning of the room, but he dared not move to wipe it off.
In the end, it was Lefebvre who moved first. He retreated from the boy, walked back to his desk, and pulled open a drawer that Ian could not see. When the director returned, he was holding something that by now Ian was quite familiar with: a grey forearm brace, and within its built-in dock, a new TACPAD.
Lefebvre held the brace out to Ian. “Very well. Henceforth, you are no longer trainee Zero-Five-Seven. Welcome to the Clandestine Operations Sector, Code Zero-Five-Seven. Your designation is now ‘Knight’. Congratulations on an early completion of your training.”
“S-Sir?” Ian stuttered partially, taken aback at how straightforward this all appeared to be. There was a process to being certified as an official operative of the Sector, but this wasn’t it, if the trainee documents were anything to go by.
“Hmm?” Lefebvre inclined his head slightly but kept his eyes on the recruit. “You were expecting more ceremony, I take it? Normally, there would be, Mister Alcantara. But your circumstances are… different, from the others who joined the same time as you. After all, I see no need to have a ceremony for one agent alone.”
Ian couldn’t help blinking this time. His head eventually tipped so he could look down at the forearm brace in Lefebvre’s hand. After some hesitation, he slowly reached over to receive the brace, then gingerly secured it around his right forearm.
When he had finished fastening the brace to his arm, he found Lefebvre’s open right hand stretched out toward him. Ian glanced back up at the man’s face, which bore the same stoic expression.
Ian grasped the man’s paw and gave it as firm a shake as he could muster.
“Th… Thank you, Director.” Ian said, stopping there before more incoherent babble could leave his lips. The situation still felt rather dreamlike to him.
Lefebvre let go of Ian’s hand after a couple of seconds. “Now, if you have no further questions, then you are dismissed.”
Ian had a mind to ask a blunt “what do I do now” in response to that, but he felt that coming right out with such a vague question would probably fray the director’s newly-formed faith in him, so he held his tongue. Instead, he gave another nod, hesitated another second or two, then turned his back on the director and moved toward the wooden doors.
He had just grasped the doorknob when the director’s baritone voice reached out to him again.
“There are wolves at the gates, Knight. We need shepherds to keep them at bay, now more than ever. And if it so happens they are now among us, we will need you to drive them out.”
Ian glanced over his shoulder at where Director Lefebvre stood in front of his desk, watching him leave.
“I understand, sir,” he said with another tiny nod.
This time, Lefebvre said nothing in response, but offered a mere nod in return.
Ian left the director’s chambers. When the inner doors clicked shut behind him, he paused in the anteroom between the receptionist’s office and Lefebvre’s to lift up his arm and gaze at the brand new TACPAD sitting in the brace around his arm.
He’d done it. He’d really pulled through.
Fighting to keep the euphoric emotions from bursting out of him lest a hidden camera catch him with an idiotic expression on his face, Ian instead resolved to pushed open the outer doors that led back to the receptionist’s office and waiting area.
When he walked past, Cassidy glanced up at him from her computer. “Congratulations, Mister Alcantara.”
Ian glanced at her, still suppressing a high of pride swelling in his chest. He returned her smile.
“Thank you,” he said with a nod.
“You have a visitor waiting for you just outside,” Cassidy added as he began to walk toward the exit. “She came shortly after you’d gone in to see the director.”
“I see. Thank you for letting me know. Excuse me.”
Ian continued toward the door, pulled it open, and returned to the long, empty corridor connecting the director’s office with the rest of the administration offices. Unlike when he came through earlier, however, the corridor was not devoid of other people this time.
A woman pushed herself off the nearby wall that she was leaning on to Ian’s left unfolding her arms from her chest. She wore a dark blue tank top that eventually gave way to a pair of black combat pants and pants that resembled the ones Ian wore himself. Though she was svelte and did not lack in surface femininity, Ian recognized the deceptive truth beneath. His body snapped to attention and he stopped walking.
“So, you’re finally here.”
She took a few steps closer to Ian. Though she was shorter than Ian by a few centimetres, Ian had never felt superior or figuratively ‘taller’ than her. He’d always felt small in her presence - something that he privately admitted he did not always take issue with.
Her blue eyes lowered to Ian’s right wrist, then back up to his face. She closed them for two seconds, then let out a sigh. Having been at her side for a while, Ian could tell this was not a sigh of exasperation or irritation - he’d been on the receiving end of such enough times to know the difference.
When she opened her eyes again, she lifted her arm toward Ian’s head. Ian nearly took a step back and recoiled from the simple movement alone, but like many times before, the woman was faster than him.
She placed her hand on top of his head and grabbed a fistful of his hair, then tugged at it and gave his head a small, brief shake. To people who’d never met this lady, the gesture would be taken as an aggressive one, but to Ian, who’d known her more than most, it was surprising. The gesture itself was barely even painful. To be truthful, it was the opposite.
Erin Kennedy let go of his hair and lowered her arm back down to her side. One corner of her lips rose a fragment of a centimetre - a detail that would elude most others, but one that did not escape Ian’s eye.
“Hmph.” She looked him up and down once. “I guess you’re not that bad, then.”
“Thank you, ma’am.” Ian tried not to smile at the remark, determined not to spontaneously sour her mood.
“Don’t let it get to your head, yeah?”
Erin lifted a file folder that was in her other hand for Ian to see. “Good. We’ve got more work to do.”
“The intel you picked up last week. Project FENRIR. Command wants us to investigate it further.”
“Us?” Ian echoed.
Erin cocked an eyebrow at him. “Right. Me and you. Got a problem with that? Or were you planning on a vacation to celebrate scraping a pass on the training program?”
“N-no, of course not, ma’am. It’s just--”
Erin dropped the folder back to her hip. “What?”
Ian hesitated, considering the ramifications of such a simple thing as honesty. Ultimately, he risked a genuine remark, egged on by Erin’s impatient air.
“It’ll be good working with you again,” he said quietly.
Erin stared at him wordlessly for a second. Then, as if she’d decided the young recruit had definitely wasted her time by saying something trivial, she turned toward the far end of the corridor.
“I’ve got a car topside,” she said without looking over her shoulder at him, beginning to walk away. “Grab your things from your trainee quarters, and be quick about it.”
“We’re… not discussing Project FENRIR here?” Ian asked, stumbling toward her.
“No. You can’t stay here anymore, or have you forgotten? And there’s no drinking here at HQ.”
“Hurry up. You’ve got twenty minutes. Meet me above ground when you’ve gathered your things.”
As Ian bounded beside her, Erin peered at him from the corner of her eye.
“And just so we’re clear,” she said.
Ian glanced sideways at her.
“Don’t expect me to give you special treatment just because you’re officially an agent now,” she told him. “Far as I’m concerned, you’re still training. Only now I expect a little more from you. Understand? Keep up or I’ll leave you behind.”
“Yes, ma’am,” Ian said crisply.
Erin gave him the side-eye a second longer, then redirected her gaze back to the exit leading to the administration offices.
“Well, go on, kid. Twenty minutes, not a second more,” she said, jerking her head slightly toward the exit.
Ian nodded, then jogged the length of the hallway and vanished past the heavy steel doors, bound for the trainees’ accommodations.
Erin watched him go, then when the corridor was empty save for her, she reluctantly allowed herself to smile a little.
After a moment, she walked down the corridor and followed after the recruit.