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Over the Top Secret - Chapter 9
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Start at the beginning (Prologue - AKA Mission Report)
Read the previous chapter (Chapter 8 - AKA Code Red)
Read the next chapter (Chapter 10 - AKA The Prince of Weapons)
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I sit quietly on the floor, still reeling from the influx of information, while Eric, The Director, and Simon argue about my fate.
It’s the strangest feeling. I’ve always been in control of my life, executing my plan, making headway toward the next stage in my carefully mapped out academic life. Now I’m just a pawn in these strangers’ incredibly dangerous game, still in need of some pants.
What scares me more than the fact that they keep forgetting I’m a human, as opposed to Simon’s lab rat, is that it’s terrifyingly clear they don’t have a plan.
“What are you saying, Simon?” The Director asks, her voice cracking from dehydration. She’s leaned over her desk, resting her head in her hand, eyes glossy with exhaustion. Her frizzy hair forms a halo around her head, and the purple bags beneath her eyes have deepened since earlier.
Simon has spent the last twenty minutes catching her up on all his findings from our tests earlier, but she, like me, still hasn’t entirely accepted the reality of the situation. I’m their new McGuffin, and there’s nothing The Director can do about it.
Unless she’s willing to let Simon put me under the scalpel, but I’ve been silently praying for that suggestion to not come up. I wonder if I click my heels together three times and say, “There’s no place like home,” if I might magically end up back at my apartment, safe and in my comfort zone with a pile of assignments in front of me.
I’m embarrassed to say it doesn’t. And by the way everyone’s looking at me, they’re embarrassed for me too.
Her phone continues ringing on her desk, but she lets it go, adding to the claustrophobic atmosphere of her half-floor office space. “You can’t possibly expect me to send a civilian into the field? My God.” She shakes the thought out of her head.
“I don’t see how we have any other options,” Simon states, referring to the stack of notes in his arms. “My readings couldn’t be clearer.” He flips his stack of colorful charts and incomprehensible squiggly lines around to face The Director. I silently curse his all-knowing readings. “The McGuffin speaks to Julie, but only when it is activated, if you will, by certain triggers. What constitutes a trigger is still unclear, but text and images seem to work. This is why Julie needs to go into the field with Eric, in order to make herself available to any future triggers.”
The Director’s eyes glaze over at the realization that Simon’s right.
I watch with an odd combination of sleep-deprived weariness and adrenaline-fueled fear as they all asses my clammy, frazzled figure still crouched in the corner. Eric shakes his head. The Director purses her lips. Simon looks into my eyes and it catches me off guard. I can feel he’s looking at me for the first time and not The McGuffin. He’s just a teenager, but his blue peepers hold a knowing gaze, the kind of gaze that I’ve only ever shared with my hundred-and-two-year-old grandpa. I wonder what his curious mind sees in me. What scientific possibilities are formulating in him right now?
“Hell no,” says Eric. He shakes his head at The Director, but it has no effect on her steely gaze. “I know exactly what you’re going to say, and I won’t do it.”
“And what am I going to say?” she asks.
“C’mon Penelope. I’m not a babysitter,” he whines. She raises an eyebrow at him. “You already sent me after her once and look what happened,” he continues, gesturing to me as one would a dog peeing on a carpet.
“I don’t like the idea any more than you do, but Simon’s right. It’s our only option,” she says with a shrug.
“Ooh!” Simon puts a finger to the air, like he’s formulating an idea. “Who knows what kind of effects sending her into the field will have on her mind! Not to mention her bodily responses...”
Finally, someone addresses my physical health.
“What if she convulses mid-trigger again, and the transfer explodes her brain?” Eric says.
I involuntarily shiver at the terrifying mental image, balking at Eric with a petrified face. He continues on, ignoring the silent waves of fear emanating off me. “My point is, Julie will be nothing but dead weight. I’m not going to risk my life following ambiguous clues from an unstable source,” he says. Yet he’s been perfectly fine relying on The McGuffin’s mystical powers this entire time.
“Listen, both of you,” she says. She holds her open palms in front of her as if to block their remarks. “Thank you for sharing your concerns, but it’s clear what needs to happen. Julie is currently our only source of information regarding the whereabouts of the stolen Backup. Therefore, she will join you, Eric.” She gives him a stern look. “You’ll head on a mission to retrieve the backup in case Julie is triggered by any other unexpected connections to The McGuffin.”
“Any questions?” she asks, testing him.
I raise my hand. “I have one,” I say, my voice scratchy and weak. Everyone turns to me, startled. It’s incredible how quickly these people forget I’m right there in the room with them.
“What about the whole, ‘This is your mission, should you choose to accept it’ thing?”
“That’s Mission Impossible, Julie,” Simon says, stacking his papers together neatly. “That was just my test message. Remember?”
“And this is T.O.P.S.E.C.R.E.T. Where our agents obey orders without question,” The Director says, giving each of us a separate pointed look.
“Does this mean I’m an agent now?” I ask.
“No.” Eric’s shaking his head vehemently. “No, definitely not.”
The Director sighs. “I suppose so, but only temporarily. Your purpose is to accompany Eric in case anything triggers another message from The McGuffin. Once you retrieve The Backup and return it to headquarters, we’ll remove The McGuffin from your brain, wipe your memory of your time here at T.O.P.S.E.C.R.E.T., and send you home.”
Wipe my memory? I’m not sure if I like the sound of permanently forgetting a few days of my life. I guess that’d make me just like all the other twenty-something’s who’re getting black out drunk this week for Spring Break. It’s probably best to leave any trace of this traumatizing experience in the trashcan, anyway.
“But we can’t remove The McGuffin!” says Simon. The Director stares straight ahead, resigning herself. He quickly adds, “Er, because it’ll kill Julie.”
“While they’re gone, you’re going to figure out how to remove it. Without killing Julie. Understood?” He nods almost imperceptibly.
“Eric, take Julie to get prepped,” she orders.
“It’s not too late to change your mind, Penelope,” Eric says.
The Director looks to the popcorn ceiling and says, “Why must you give me these problems?” She massages her temples.
“At least you’re not T.O.P.S.E.C.R.E.T.’s best agent being demoted to a babysitter,” Eric mutters.
“Who said you’re our top agent?” The Director asks.
“Who else could it be?”
“Maybe it’s Agent Fifty-Six.”
Eric sucks in a breath. “I don’t see what’s so great about Agent Fifty-Six.”
“Agent Fifty-Six never gives me sass. Agent Fifty-Six goes in and out and gets it done without a problem. Agent Fifty-Six delivers mission logs on time.” He waves away her comments.
“There is no Agent Fifty-Six, and you know it.”
The Director sets her bottom jaw with dead eyes.
“Excuse me?” I raise a finger. They all turn to me. “Do I have to go?” I ask, barely a whisper.
“Were you not just listening?” Eric jumps off the desk and turns to me. “The fate of the world is at stake because of you.” Eric stares me down. “You started this mess, and you’re going to help me clean it up.”
“Me!” I shriek. “I’m not the one who put a highly dangerous and incredibly secret government test in an online quiz!”
“Yeah, but you took the quiz.”
“Yeah, but you put it there.”
“Technically Simon did,” Eric clarifies. Simon smiles sheepishly, writing something else down on his papers. “Also, you’re the one who launched Project McGuffin, Julie, which is the main concern here.”
“Only because your vents aren’t good for shit and you leave LAUNCH buttons lying around!”
“Stop questioning our methods!” Eric snaps.
“Alright, alright, settle down,” The Director says. “Julie, please work with us here. This situation isn’t exactly ideal for any of us.”
Sigh. I guess this is what I deserve for panicking and turning to an online quiz for comfort in the first place.
“Can I at least call my parents?” Any excuse to not go just yet.
Eric gives The Director an annoyed glance. Then he raises his hands as if to say, “I’m not going to deal with this. You handle it.”
“Julie, you cannot share any of this information with anyone outside of T.O.P.S.E.C.R.E.T. Even if—when you go home. Is that clear?”
I catch my breath. If? Hot tears silently well in my eyes when I realize just how alone I really am.
“It has to be this way. I’m sorry,” she adds somberly.
It seems my only two options are to go with Eric and die in “the field,” or stay with Simon and be stuck with needles, treated like a lab rat and killed in the pursuit of knowledge. Jeez, since when did my future become so grim?
At least with Eric, I’ll get to see Paris.
“I’ll help you, Eric,” I say with resolve.
“I don’t need any more help from you,” he mutters.
I bite my bottom lip. What else could go wrong?