Mary sat down at the small table with her grandfather. She glanced out the windows that surrounded the pod that she was in; all she could see was filtered bluish-grey sea water and a tunnel leading off to a larger residential hub and occasional bits of Loch’s sea-life floating past. So it was on her home world, far, far away from where her body lay dreaming; most of the residents lived beneath the vast oceans of the planet, under tremendous pressure. Her family had been lucky enough and wealthy enough to be able to have a few privacy amenities like this one.
She held the cup of hot coffee in her hands. It dwarfed them, and she realized that she was a lot younger in this dream than she actually was. Her grandfather towered over her like a giant with heavy jowls, sparse hair and watery blue eyes. Bright red capillaries born of heavy alcoholism adorned his nose, and the overpowering reek of Scotch made her own eyes water.
“Why’dja bring me out here, girlie?”
<<Gruber: You realize that Omega Protocol is only to be initiated when absolutely necessary. It is difficult to coordinate and displays a lack of trust. Why did you insist on it?”>>
“I just wanted some private time with you. I didn’t want everyone to hear us talking, grandpa.”
<<Mary: I’m quite aware, and I’m sure that you’ll understand when I go into detail. There are people who shouldn’t hear what I have to convey, and those people may belong to SCAPE as well. Is that acceptable?>>
“Ach, all right lassie. Can you get your grandpapa a drink, maybe? My throat’s a bit dry.”
<<Gruber: Do you have your report compartmentalized?>>
Mary reached under the table and opened the cabinet, pulling out a bottle of Scotch, imported from Earth. It was a horribly decadent purchase, so much so that Mary was a little embarrassed that she had such clear memories of it and wondered if it made Gruber think any less of her. She pulled out a smooth, round glass and poured her grandfather a couple of fingers and put the bottle away, passing him the glass.
Grandpa began to sip at the scotch, his eyes widening and expression becoming blissful. “That’s the stuff… “
<<Gruber: Good info. You’ll be happy to know that the Rell is doing all right. I’m not seeing from this report why you called Omega here, though.>>
“When you’re done with it, Grandpa, maybe we can play a game.” Mary suggested.
<<Mary: You’ll understand when you’re done with the report.>>
Grandpa scowled. “Ya can’t just rush a good Scotch, ya know.” He grunted and continued to sip.
<<Gruber: There’s a lot of information here. Give me a couple of minutes.>>
Mary looked under the table and pulled out a board with alternating red and white squares. It was solid wood, from the Homeworld, and also a luxury, though not so much so as something disposable like the Scotch. She set it down on the table in plain sight.
“What’s yer game, girlie? Chess or checkers?”
<<Gruber: How long do you think this assignment is going to last, Mary? It doesn’t look like it’s a very large organization. We could move on them this week.>>
“I don’t know, Grandpa. Should we even be playing a game?”
<<Mary: I wouldn’t have invoked Omega and asked for a private dream meeting if I thought that this was going to be a simple issue. Have you gotten to the part about the Awakeners? They are seriously concerned about their involvement. That’s one of the reasons I that I called for this; I wanted to have someone who wasn’t an Awakener review the information before it is shared and archived.>>
“Yer always playing a game, Mary, whether you think you are or not. The smarter folks, we know it. Don’t forget it.” He finished the scotch, leaned back, and dug his thumbs into his waistband with a contented sigh.
<<Gruber: Every small group like this has paranoid fantasies. It would only make sense for a group of rebel psychics to take issue with Awakeners. What have you found that lends any credence to their theories?>>
“Grandpa, do you think you could help me make my own chess set?” Mary pleaded, her hands on the table.
<<Mary: This is only one cell, boss. We could grab these guys, but there’s a network to be concerned about. I think Althea is more important than she has suggested, too. I want to find out who she is. She claims that she left the Society a few years back. Not many of us disappear, Hans, it’s got to be a pretty short list.
I need your help. I need a legitimate reason to have access to information surrounding the Awakener incidents that she told me about. If there is any reasonable doubt about them I can sow seeds of distrust among other members of the group. If there isn’t… well, then we all need to know.>>
“Ah, sure, of course! I’ll just cut down yonder tree out there – “ Her grandfather waved expansively at the blue-grey waters. “- and I’m sure you’ll be right handy with a table saw at yer age. Nah, if you want a chessboard, use the one we’ve got for you. There’s a reason we pay people to do things for us, girlie: they’re better at it than we are. You make yer own chessboard and it’ll look like shite.” He thumped his glass once on the table. Mary frowned and pulled out the bottle again, pouring him a couple more fingers’ worth.
<<Gruber: Part of the glue that holds together SCAPE is the trust that our agents put in each other, Mary. I can put forward requests to access specific files or reports for you, but have you do it yourself because a bunch of half-baked psis have been trying to fill your ears with paranoid nonsense? No. You’re not a data analyst, you’re a Systems Engineer and a SCAPE agent. Get me the specifics and I’ll have them investigated for you.>>
“But Granpda, what if I get practice? There can’t be many other people who can make chessboards here. And you always told me that the rarer a thing is, the more valuable it is. What could be rarer than a chessboard made on here on Loch where there are no trees?” Mary didn’t like wheedling her grandfather; he had a lot of grandkids and was wise to it. She had spent much of her life watching her family pay other people to do things for them, though, and had always found it frustrating, though she was young enough that it was hard to give voice to her frustrations. She wanted to be the one doing things, making things, and getting paid for it herself.
<<Mary: Give me a chance, Gruber. I’m on the ground floor on this one. Degrees of separation means that anything that gets through to our data handlers is going to be third or fourth hand. I want to see this for myself. I’ll keep up on the reports, and unless I come across something big, we won’t have to go Omega again, and if I do, then you’ll know why – I found some fairly obvious evidence of Awakener malfeasance. I know you can pull the strings to get me into some kind of comm analyst position, or archival work. It’s not too much of a stretch, and it would go a long way towards getting Althea’s trust – as well as finding out who she really is.>>
Grandpa rubbed his forehead, jowls quivering. In the window behind him a shape rose in the water, looking like a slick-sided barrel with a starfish at one end and membranous fins or wings gently pushing it away from the pod that they were sitting in.
“Mary, some people just aren’t made to do that sort of thing. Yer not that kind of girl, none of our family is. We don’t build little things. I’ll tell ya what though, since I used to like to whittle back when I was a young man on the Home World – promise me that it’s just a hobby. Promise me that it won’t take away from yer school or yer friends, and I’ll get ya some materials and some tools. My Brin probably knows a bit about the craft, I’ll let ya sit with him for instruction.”
<<Gruber: Fine, we’ll get you moved, but I want you to know that I’m marking your insistence at this as a possible cause for concern. Paranoia can be infectious. I’m going to request that you put in more regular reports, and we’re going to need to give you monthly checkups, too. It’s not that I don’t trust you, Mary – it’s that you’re young, you’re new at this, and I sure as anything don’t trust them.>>
The odd creature continued to propel itself away, fading into the distance. Mary got up and gave her Grandpa a hug, and the scent of his aftershave, deodorant, sweat and Scotch gave her a dizzying wave of nostalgia.
“Thank you, Grandpa! I promise won’t let it get in the way of school.”
<<Mary: Thank you for the opportunity. I really do hope that I’m wrong. Also, we had an observer, but I think they got frustrated, they just left. That’s the other half of the reason I invoked Omega, Hans. They’re watching me like a hawk.>>
Grandpa petted her on her head.