This is a work in progress, a direct sequel to Bering Songs and Silence, where we see the beginning of Tim and Brigid’s partnership under the auspices of UNSETIC. But what happens next? Read on to find out.
“I’m getting sick of this bloody dodging bullets bullshit.”
I choked on a laugh, shaking my head as I met Kate Berkshire’s glower head-on. “That’s because you’re not getting any better at it.”
“No, I’m getting worse,” the Irish soldier snapped, then swore, glaring at the medic to her left. “What was that for?”
“Stop your bitching,” Joshua Talmadge growled, not looking up from his work on Kate’s left arm. “You’re lucky it’s just a through and through. If it was any worse we’d be at U of C Medical trying to explain how you happened to wander in front of a bullet and oh no, please don’t involve the police, there’s no need to report anything it’s just a silly mistake no real harm done as you’re bleeding on a freaking gurney.”
“I’m sure you could pull it off, Josh,” I said, patting the doctor on the shoulder. He snorted humorlessly and shook his head.
“Don’t patronize me, McConaway. You’re ill-suited to it.”
“I don’t know, I think she’s pretty good at it.” Kate smiled weakly. “Just a scratch.”
“You could be bleeding out with your intestines falling out of a hole in your gut and it’d be ‘just a scratch.’” I grinned as I started to dig around for my cell, which had started vibrating in my back pocket.
“Popular today, aren’t you?” Kate waved me away with her good hand as she saw me digging around for my phone. “Go take it. I’m not going anywhere until the good doctor’s done with me.”
Don’t recognize that area code. “It’s probably a wrong number anyway. I’ll be right back. Try not to piss off Josh while I’m gone, huh?” I ducked out of the infirmary and into the hall. We’d been back in the Portal Corps headquarters in downtown Chicago for maybe fifteen minutes, returned from yet another off-world foray that had probably resulted in more trouble than it was worth. I glanced down at my phone’s screen again and shook my head as I tapped it and lifted the phone to my ear. This had better be quick. I don’t have time to break away from refereeing right now. “This is McConaway.”
“Hello, Dr. McConaway? My name is Brigid O’Connell, and I have some news about your brother.”
My heart stopped. Brigid O’Connell had been the name of the woman who’d led the search after Tim and Mat had disappeared over the deserts of Iraq. They’d found Mat’s plane but no trace of him in it.
That was because something from beyond the boundaries of Earth had kidnapped them both, whisked them off to somewhere far away. Only a few people knew that, though, and almost all of them worked here, worked for the Corps.
What could she possibly know? She’s not with the Corps. I’d know if she was.
“Doctor? Are you there?”
“Of course. Of course. I—I’m sorry.” I took a deep breath and exhaled it slowly, trying to will my heart to slow down, to force my guts to cooperate. “I’m here. I—what do you have to tell me, Miss O’Connell?”
“It’s Lieutenant O’Connell, actually, and…he’s here.”
“It’s nice to—wait, what?” This has to be a dream, some kind of hallucination. I got shot instead of Kate. That’s it. I’m hallucinating because I’ve lost way too much blood and I’m dreaming this.
“Here, you talk to her.”
“What? Wait a second here—”
It was his voice, unmistakably my brother. My heart thudded against my breastbone and every breath was a battle.
How did he get back? How is he—where is he? There was a tremor in my voice as I dared to speak his name. “Tim?”
He sighed into the phone. “Hey AJ. Are you okay?”
“No. No, not okay. Where are you?”
“Virginia,” he said. “Alexandria. Where are you?”
“Chicago. Where else would I be?” I squeezed my eyes shut. How had he gotten to Virginia without us knowing? Was there another Portal somewhere near there that we didn’t know about?
Goddammit, there’s too much we don’t know.
There were a thousand questions I wanted to ask him—chief among them was how the hell he’d ended up in Virginia without our knowing that he was back on Earth. I couldn’t ask that question over the phone, though, especially not with O’Connell there with him, not without knowing what she might know about him, about what he’d been through. I squeezed my eyes shut, sagging against the wall.
“Sis? You there?”
“I’m here,” I said, voice coming choked from a throat so tight I could barely breathe. “Are you safe?”
“Why wouldn’t I be?”
I caught a hitch in his voice and shivered. We both know why—but do you remember that I know, that Kate knows?
He said that he wouldn’t. He was going to make himself forget so he could protect us. Damn it all.
“Just making sure,” I whispered. “I…I need to see you. I need an address.” Kate would want to come with me. Scott and Sierra would be expecting a report from us on the last run. There wouldn’t be time to write one before I—before we—left.
A thought struck me. Had they known he was back? Had he somehow shown up while Kate and I were on a run and they just hadn’t told us?
No. No, they wouldn’t keep a secret like that from us. If they tried, it would be a cover up of epic proportions. Bryn would say something. There’d be no hesitation. If she knew, we’d know. End of story.
Scott and Sierra couldn’t have known—no one connected to the Corps knew. That was for certain.
Tim rattled off an address. I wrote it on my hand, struggling not to drop my phone as I did. My heart was going three times its normal speed.
“You’ll be there?” I asked, my voice still shaking.
“I don’t know where else I’d go,” he said quietly. “If I’m not there, I’ll be here. Call this number if you need to.”
“Absolutely,” O’Connell’s voice said in the background. “I’ll help her find you if you’re not already here.”
“Not like I’ve got anywhere to go,” he said, his voice a little muffled.
My eyes stung. You could come here. You could come home. I glanced toward the door to the infirmary, biting down hard on my lower lip. Why hadn’t he come here? Why hadn’t he come home?
There must be a good reason. I’ll find out what it is.
“I’m coming there,” I said. “Don’t say I didn’t warn you. I’ll be there tomorrow, as early as I can. I promise. Don’t go anywhere.”
“I won’t,” he said quietly. “I’ll see you.”
“I missed you,” I said in a bare whisper. “We all missed you. I…I’m glad you’re back.”
There was a long silence on the other end of the line before he said, “Yeah. So am I, AJ. I’ll see you tomorrow.”
“I love you, too. Be careful.”
He hung up and I stood there in the hall, staring at the wall without actually seeing it in front of me. My brother was back on Earth. He was home.
Why hadn’t anyone told us before now?
I knuckled my eyes and exhaled a shaky breath, counting to ten before I straightened. Shoving my phone into my pocket, I headed back into the infirmary, hoping I didn’t look half as shaken as I felt.
“That was a long wrong number,” Kate said before her gaze met mine. Then she saw the look on my face and all good-humored teasing evaporated. Her expression grew serious. “What’s the matter?”
I closed the door behind me. “I just talked to Tim.”
“Tim? My Tim?”
“He’s my Tim, too,” I reminded her. “He was my Tim first.”
“Whatever. You talked to him? How is that even possible?”
“Should I be here for this?” Josh asked, glancing up from Kate’s stitches. “Because I can go if this is classified six feet above my ass.”
“It’s not,” I said, even though I wasn’t actually sure of that. “It’s fine. Just finish up.”
“He wants me to go get some x-rays,” Kate said with a slight glower. “Something about getting lucky if I didn’t nick the bone.”
“I just said it was a good idea,” Josh said. “You told me it hurt more than the last time you got shot and it hurt deep. That means bone or deep tissue damage. Do you want to be safe about this or not?”
“You’re the one who was moaning about U of C Medical.”
“It’s better to be safe than sorry.”
“Would you two stop bickering for twenty seconds?” I snapped. “Kate, I’m driving to Virginia. I’m driving tonight. Are you coming?”
“Why—oh. Is that where he is?”
“That’s where he said he is.” My lips thinned. “How the hell did he get back to Earth without our knowing?”
Josh frowned. “Is he one of those ones the Cabal nabbed a few years ago?”
“Yeah,” Kate said. “He’s practically the only one we’ve ever had a chance of bringing back, too.”
I could still hear the pain and regret in her voice when she talked about that missed opportunity, even though it had been the better part of two years ago—two years this coming June. It wasn’t that it frustrated me any less, but she’d been clinging even tighter to the hope of bringing him home in those few days than I had.
He’d asked her to keep a promise and I’d never quite been able to bring myself to ask her what that promise was.
There’s no way that she’s just going to stay here if he’s back, if he’s within reach. There’s no way. I just stared at her, waiting for the answer I knew was coming.
She didn’t meet my gaze as she said, “I’ll cover for you. Call your uncle and get going.”
“You’d bet—what?” Wait, she’s not coming with me? “Kate—”
“Scott and Sierra are going to need a report and I can make it for both of us,” Kate said quietly, finally lifting her eyes to meet mine. There was a familiar pain there, the deep one that I’d seen in snatches and glimpses since the day we’d left my brother on Mydiar. “I had days with him back then. You had five minutes. Go. Go see him and make sure it’s real. Make sure we’re not going to lose him again.”
My throat tightened.
She doesn’t want to come with me because she’s afraid that it’s not going to last—that we’re going to lose him all over again.
Truth be told, I was afraid of the same thing, but I had to believe that this time he was back for good. I didn’t know how he’d managed it, but I was sure as hell going to find out.
“Are you sure?” I asked.
“I’m positive.” Kate glanced down at her knees, shaking her head. “I’ll fly out tomorrow or the next day. Call me when you get there and I’ll call you about the flight or…or whatever. Go call Chris and tell him you’re going out of town and then get going before Scott or Sierra show up and stop you.”
“It’s going to be a lonely drive,” I whispered. I was sure she’d come with me. I didn’t plan on doing this alone.
“You’ll be fine,” Kate said. “Go.”
I shivered, nodding. This felt far too familiar. “All right. I’ll call when I get there.”
I gave her and Josh each a tight smile and slipped out into the hall, heart thudding leadenly against my breast. Kate was right. I needed to get out of headquarters before Scott Andrews or Sierra O’Rourke caught up with me—otherwise, I wouldn’t be getting out of the city anytime soon.
I booked for the stairs that would take me up to the rehabbed print shop’s foyer and Printer’s Row beyond. If I was quick, I’d be able to make it to the L in time to be home before the sun went down. I needed my car and a couple of changes of clothes from the house.
It was out of the way, but I didn’t have a choice. I needed the clothes and the least I could do before driving east was let my uncle know that I’d be doing it. He’d come to terms with what I did every day—he knew about half of it, anyhow—but I knew it went hard on him when I was away.
I was all he had left. His brother—my father—was dead and the two boys Christopher McConaway had raised alongside me were missing and had been for three years.
Do I tell him, or do I play the waiting game and spare his heart like Kate’s asking me to spare hers? My lips thinned as I stepped out into the gloom of a February afternoon in Chicago, grimacing as I realized I’d left my coat downstairs before we’d left on our jaunt beyond the Portal. It was still hanging on the back of my chair in my office, the one I shared with Carson Matthews, a cultural anthropologist whose father had been one of the ones kidnapped three years ago the same way Tim and Mat had been. Carson was newer to the Corps, had only been with us six months, but he was catching on fast.
I shivered in the wind and shook my head as I felt around in my pocket for my keys and found them. Not going back down there. If I go back down there, I’m going to get waylaid. There’s no doubt about that. I’ll just make a run for the station. I won’t freeze to death if I hurry.
Sucking in a deep breath, I sprinted for the stairs to the Red Line station a block from where I’d been standing, hoping that my wallet was in the bag I was still carrying from the off-world run and that I hadn’t left it with my coat.
Too late now. Already made the run for it.
I stumbled down the concrete steps and into the warmth of the subway tunnel, already shivering from the late winter chill. It had been a relatively mild winter here in Chicago, but that didn’t mean it was much warmer than bitter cold—especially not this close to the lakeshore. I dug around in my bag, hoping to find my wallet and eventually locating it in the deepest, darkest corner of the bag as I made my way to the turnstiles guarding the entry to the train platforms.
I breathed a sigh of relief as my fingers closed around my car keys and CTA card. Small favors. That’s all I can ever ask for.
I took the train from Harrison and hit my connections—Red Line to Blue all the way to Rosemont where I’d left my car. Sometimes I took the Metra all the way in and out of the city, but when I didn’t know when I’d be coming home, I liked the convenience of leaving my Jeep closer to downtown rather than at the Metra stations in Barrington or Schaumburg. I stared out the windows of the train, at the city and at tunnel walls, fingers tapping against my knee in agitated impatience, all the way from the station where I’d gotten on the Blue Line to Rosemont, where my insane life with the Corps and UNSETIC had begun. It felt like a long time ago.
How am I going to tell him? How am I going to break that news?
I wasn’t sure if I was trying to figure out how to explain this to my uncle, or how I was going to break the news to my brother that our other uncle, our mother’s brother, was dead. I didn’t know which one would be harder.
I closed my eyes and sighed. Dammit.
The train stopped at Rosemont and I got off, went hunting for my car. Somewhere between there and home, I’d figure out how I was going to tell Uncle Chris.
I really didn’t have much choice about that.