Warka Vase

Volume Two in the Discovery Projects Series

The purity of focus required for the shooting range made the small bunker a refuge for Cody Bass. Since leaving the United States Air Force three months ago Cody had adjusted relatively well to civilian life. Echo Tate deserved most of the credit, without her patience and ability to read Cody’s volatile emotions Cody would have sabotaged their relationship by now. She gave her space when she needed it but held her close when Cody was about to run. Trusting another human being went against all Cody’s instincts.

“Hands free!” Echo shouted as she entered the shooting range. She had learnt not to sneak up behind Cody. As soon as Cody released the magazine, put down the gun and took off her earphones Echo ran into her arms. “We just got the TB call. We have to be wheels up in forty minutes to make the deadline,” she said, bouncing up and down. “Finally I get my turn. I’ve been waiting for this for so long. You’re going to love it.”

“Hold on, bullet point catch up required.”

“No time. I’ll fill you in on the plane. Jay is packing the kits and I have to get the latest plans for priority one. You need to put together code two, no make that code three weaponry. Jay will do the rest.” Echo gave Cody a quick peck on the cheek. “This is so exciting. I gotta go.” She ran out of the room.

Half an hour later Cody stepped onto the small company jet. Echo was already seated with a pile of blueprints and specs spread around her. “So there’s thermals and snow gear in the kit,” Cody said. “You’ve got Harry in the pilot’s seat, he’s your long haul guy.” Cody sat across from Echo’s pile. “So I was thinking we’re going back to find more Mildenhall treasure. But…You have a glint in your eye that doesn’t match a trip to England. And I can see Chinese writing so my guessing game is over.”

The pilot’s voice came over the loud speaker. “We will taxi out in two minutes, buckle up people.”

Echo hastily tried to reign in the paperwork so Cody could sit beside her. “Actually it’s Nepal first and then China.” Echo buckled her seat belt. “Its priority one for the TB mission. We finally get to return the missing piece of the vase. This is the biggest honor of my career. I’m so glad you get to do this with me.” Echo squeezed Cody’s hand.

“Words I can understand please.”

“I’ve put a file together for you.” Echo handed over a large folder and took a deep calming breath. “The cliff notes version is there is a small group of monks in Tibet who possess a device that creates a time bubble. They get in contact with us when they think the time is right and we get to use it for twelve hours. So we always have a list of priorities ready to put into action. This time everything has fallen into place to carry out priority one which is—”

“Wait. Go back. A time bubble?”

“Well technically it’s not really called that, the device and what it produces has no name. To the monks it exists outside of time so therefore doesn’t really exist. It’s really interesting actually—”

“Focus.” Cody politely ordered as the jet began it’s ascent.

“Right. We call it a time bubble. We have no idea how it works of where it’s from. It’s a small sphere that generates a bubble of about four feet wide. Everything around you appears to stop but it’s actually just moving at normal speed while whatever is in the bubble is outside the time constraints.”

“Like everything else you have introduced me to that makes absolutely no sense. But I’ll move on to what’s priority one?”

“Oh that’s the best part. Have I ever told you about the Warka vase?” Cody shook her head. “Its ancient Sumerian and it used to be in the Iraqi National Museum. It got looted in the first gulf war. It was returned in pieces on the door step but the public doesn’t know that one piece was missing that’s why it’s still not on display. It’s in the private collection of a Chinese business man so we’re going to get it back and return it to Iraq.” Echo looked happy with herself as she handed over another folder. “That’s the layout and security specs for his home. But we won’t have to worry much. With the TB we literally can just walk in, get the piece and walk out before anybody knows what’s going on. Amazing isn’t it?”

“Let me get this straight you have twelve hours to use this device for anything you want?”

“Yes the monks set this up with Discovery Projects twenty years ago.”

“And your priority is to steal back a piece of a vase?”

“Don’t put it like that. This is an opportunity to rebuild a relationship, to deliver a message of peace instead of war. To give them back a piece of their heritage from an era in which they take great pride. I consider that an honor. I would think as a former soldier you would understand the importance of an olive branch.” The happy glint disappeared from Echo’s eyes.

Echo had only seen a glimpse of Cody’s life when Cody’s memories were transferred. But Echo knew she had only stood at the edge of the abyss and looked in, Cody had to pull herself out the abyss many times over. Their perspective of what was important was worlds apart.

“I’m just going to read through the files. I need some room.” Cody switched to the seat across the aisle.

“Come on Cody just say what you’re thinking.”

“You don’t want to know.”

“Of course I do. I want you to share this with me. I want you to understand why it’s so important to me and Discovery Projects. I need to know where you’re coming from to do that.”

“If I’m understanding this TB device, then you are being given power and opportunity in the palm of your hand and you’re choosing a sentimental goal that will have no tangible impact. As a former soldier I understand that this will do nothing to stop my former colleagues from being killed.”

“I think you will need to see the look on their faces when we hand it over. I’ll let you read,” Echo said, turning her body away from Cody.

Cody knew Echo was turning away to hide the tear escaping down her cheek. Cody still struggled with Echo’s emotions and her willingness to display them under any circumstances. It always caused incompatible urges in Cody. She either wanted to make it better or to tell her to toughen up. This time silence was her only response.

****

Cody tried to even out her breathing. She didn’t want her strain to be so obvious as they trekked up the steep mountain. Echo was barely puffing as the finally reached the top. A short  robed man waiting for them at the summit silently escorted them to a large temple. Even Cody had to marvel at its size and beauty.

Echo bowed to the assembled monks as one stepped forward. “It is good to see you again Echo,” he said, in perfect English.

“Tutowa this is Cody, she will be joining me.”

He bowed in response. “Join me in mediation before the evening meal. Chi Wan will take Cody through the initiation and cleansing. When we are finished eating you may go.” Echo followed the monk without a word. The crowd dispersed except for one young monk who was staring at Cody.

“I assume you’re my tour guide?” Cody asked.

“This way.”

She was taken to a room where the monk opened a large box and took out two bracelets and a small orb.

“So this really works.” Cody’s voice echoed in the high ceiling room.

“You do not believe?”

“I don’t comprehend.”

“When you reach your destination you will twist the first tier one hundred and eighty degrees anti-clock wise and the second tier one hundred and eighty degrees clock wise. Is that clear?”

“Clear.”

“To return to our time you will turn the third tier three hundred and sixty degrees.”

“Which way?”

“It doesn’t matter. Either way will work.”

“And the bracelets?” Cody picked one up.

“The cuffs.” He snatched them back.  “Are used to keep you within the subdivision.”

“You know ordinarily orientation doesn’t involve me having to drag out every detail.” The monk looked at her blankly. “Fine have it your way. Subdivision is?”

“The area that is taken out of time. It is only four feet, the cuffs will get hotter the closer you get to the barrier.”

“They’re going to burn me?”

“It’s a better option.”

“Okay then. Anything else I should know.”

He placed the device and cuffs back in the box.  “You can only stay outside of time for nine minutes. Do you understand?”

“No.” Cody replied honestly.

His eyes narrowed but there was no other sign of emotion.  “You must turn the third tier and return to our time within nine minutes.”

“Why?” Cody was starting to enjoy his attempts to hide his frustrations.

“You do not need to know why. You just need to do it.”

“Right. Okay then.”

“Now you must be cleansed.”

“Can’t say I like the sound of that.” Cody took a step back. She had already assessed the exits and gauged the resistance to an escape attempt.

He ignored her response and turned to light several incense sticks. “You will stand here please.” He pointed to an archway on the other side of the room. Cody had no problem with that, it was her plan A exit anyway. When she got into place the monk closed his eyes and began to chant. Cody had experienced many things but this was new. His voice reverberating around the room with such force and intensity it felt as if the notes were actually passing through Cody’s body. She could feel a slight tingling sensation spreading out from her spine. It was somehow both comforting and stimulating at the same time. Cody was not sure how much time passed before he stopped chanting. “You will join us for a meal now.” He turned and walked out, Cody followed, displaying unusual obedience.

****

The meal was devoured in silence. Forty men and two women sat in a large hall with nothing but the clinking of bowls as background noise. Cody noticed there was an ease to the silence, no underlying tension or seething emotions punctuating the stillness. Echo looked like she was practically glowing in the monk’s presence. She kept leaning over to give Cody’s leg a squeeze, their earlier friction seemingly forgotten.

Tutowa led the duo outside. Chi Wan joined them with the case. He handed it to Tutowa who ran his hands over the case and closed his eyes for a moment.

“You have changed Echo,” Tutowa remarked.

“I should hope so. You haven’t seen me for over five years. I’ve grown, I have more experience now.”

“Yes you have but that’s not what I mean. You are changed on a much deeper level. You have experienced unity with something beyond this realm.” Echo knew the monk was talking about her experiences in Australia. She was not surprised by Tutowa’s insight.

“I was fortunate.”

Chi Wan interrupted before Tutowa handed over the case. “Their discord is too great to receive such a gift.” Chi Wan looked directly at Cody. “Her reluctance is too great, she doesn’t trust the process.”

“With respect to your valued acuity, Cody is simply exhibiting the normal emotions of someone new to this process,” Echo pleaded.

Tatowa scrutinized the women in front of him. “Harmony is required in the subdivision. If that is not possible I would be doing you both a disservice by giving you this.” Tatowa held up the prized case. Echo had no idea what to say, she couldn’t deny Cody’s fundamental fractured nature.

“I don’t need to trust the process,” Cody said, taking hold of Echo’s hand. “I just need to trust Echo. Harmony may not be my thing, obviously, but I know how to follow her lead.”

Tatowa handed over the case to Echo. “Remember to keep your mind in this time. The subdivision is not your reality.”  Echo nodded. “You will return to us in twelve hours.” Echo nodded again and turned to leave.

Chapter two

Cody took the lead as they descended back down the mountain to the waiting jet. She didn’t want Echo’s enthusiasm to cause her to go tumbling down the hill. They both jogged up to the jet just as the pilot was doing his preflight check.

“Did you get the okay from the Beijing office Harry?” Echo asked.

“All set. A car will be waiting for you at the Beijing airport to take you to the office,” Harry replied.

“And what exactly do the Chinese authorities think we are doing?” Cody asked.

“Our company has many projects in China we are simply going to a development and investment meeting,” Echo answered.

“I see, use the key word that opens the gate in China, investment.”

“Exactly,” Echo said, boarding the plane. “We go in the front door of the office and slip out the back door to get the job done.”

“Thanks for what you said up there.” Echo flopped into her usual seat.

“It’s the truth. If you say we can turn on an orb and walk right in then I believe you.” Echo gave Cody a light peck on the cheek and then quickly pulled away. She didn’t want to get distracted right now and Cody in a tight low cut black tank top was temptation enough.

Cody smiled at Echo’s retraction. She saw the look in Echo’s eye and knew exactly what that meant. She toyed with the idea of pushing the privacy button but she resisted when she saw the look of lust on Echo’s face replaced with one of determination.

Cody redirected her line of thinking. “So what’s the deal with the nine minute limit in the bubble?”

“Well no body really knows what happens. According to the monks after nine minutes if you are still in the bubble you cease to exist.”

“Meaning?”

“Meaning you disappear, gone, nothing left. The monks believe you are relegated to the subdivision, pulling you into a separate timeline.”

“So…” Cody tried to make sense of the information.

“So you are either alive in an alternate universe our dead in our universe.”

“Either way best to listen to the monks warning. Right?”

“Basically. But it shouldn’t be a problem, we just go in and out. We won’t activate the bubble until we are at the entrance and we’ll disengage as soon as we’re out the door. I don’t foresee and problems with that do you?”

Cody picked up the files again. “No but I’ll go over their security set up again. There’s only one guard on a long patrol route, no problem there. The alarm system would be impossible to get around, we would be locked down in seconds when we remove the target. But if we are in the bubble than we will be out before it activates. In theory anyway.”

“In practice I promise,” Echo said, returning to her own paperwork. She had read dozens of files on the activation of the time bubble, she had no reason to doubt it wouldn’t work as proclaimed. But that didn’t mean the responsibility for the mission didn’t weigh heavenly on her. Being caught on the wrong side of the law in China was a very bad idea. The monks trusted her and so did Cody, it was a lot of expectation to live up to.

****

“This is amazing,” Cody said, as she watched Echo remove the small artifact from its glass case and place it in a foam envelope. “Alarms should be blaring, blast doors closing.” The world around her was slightly blurry but perfectly still. Echo handed over the envelope for Cody to place in their satchel.

“You’ve even holstered your weapon. Who would’ve thought it would only take a time bubble for you to actually relax and enjoy a mission.”

“Actually I think it’s more about the proximity factor that has me relaxed.” Cody slid her arms around Echo from behind. She nuzzled her earlobe as she lowered her hands.

“Hey the monks didn’t have this in mind when they handed us the TB.”

“The monks don’t know what they’re missing.” Cody held her tighter. “A little subdivision titillation can’t be a bad thing.”

“More like subdivision exhibitionism.” Echo pointed to a woman down the corridor. Cody automatically reached for her weapon before she remembered they couldn’t be seen.

“Okay I get the hint. Play time over, let’s get out of here.” Cody took Echo’s hand and led her out of the large house. They deactivated the bubble as soon as they got in the car. “Four minutes and twelve seconds,” Cody said, stopping the count down on her watch.

“And eight hours to return to the temple. That gives me time to verify authenticity before we leave.”

“What? We do this all over again if we missed the target?”

“Yep.”

“Do we get nine minutes or five minutes and forty-eight seconds?”

“Its nine minutes within twelve hour period so I guess that means we get five minutes.”

“No problem. So when do the monks give us this gift again?”

“When they think the time is right, could be months could be years. Oh god we’re going to have to fix priority two as soon as we get back, the plan needs a lot of work.”

“One time shifting mission at a time babe.”

“Right.” Echo gently patted the satchel checking her package was safely in hand.

Chapter three

Two hours later Echo’s package was confirmed as the missing piece of the Warka vase. She decided she had time to substantiate their reason for travelling to China by actually having a meeting with her staff. After the third yawn from Cody, Echo dismissed her colleagues and instructed her pilot to get ready for takeoff. Just as they were leaving the office Cody’s cell rang. Cody always carried it with her but as far as Echo was aware she was the only one who actually knew the number.

“Bass.” Cody answered briskly. “Is this verified…It’s her…I know…Egress options…I got it…I’ll take it from here.” Cody turned back towards the office.

“What’s up?”

“Priority two just got bumped up. I need everything you have on the TNT building down town.” Cody instructed a bemused receptionist. “Now.” The receptionist obligingly began accessed the database.

“Cody what is it?”

“Schiffe is jammed and we just happen to be in the right place at the right time to help, no pun intended.”

“Schiffe as in Rachel Schiffe?” Echo trailed after Cody who sat down in front of a computer.

“You know anyone else named Schiffe?” Cody began printing off maps.

“She’s in trouble?” Echo took a seat beside Cody. “And we’re going to help her?”

“Well you don’t have to help. I have five minutes and forty eight seconds that should do the trick.”

“You think I’m going to let you use the TB to rescue her?”

“Let me? I didn’t know I had to ask for permission.”

Echo knew it was the wrong choice of words but she wasn’t going to back down. “The monks entrusted me with it. It’s my responsibility to make sure it’s used appropriately.”

“If you don’t think saving a life is appropriate than I will get the job done without it.” Cody began tapping away at the computer.

“Cody stop.” Echo placed her hand over Cody’s. “Explain this to me.” Cody looked down at her hands with a dangerous look that bespoke of how few people dared to intercede when she had a job to do. “Please.” Echo withdrew her hands.

“Lee Shen’s men have her in the basement of his building. She has a lot of information they want. The Americans will disavow. She won’t break, so her usefulness is going to come to an end very soon. She’s not walking away from this one unless I get her out.” Cody summed up the situation in her usual precise way.

“And you’re the only one who can do it?”

“My contacts’ already been made. He can’t go back in under the radar. So there is no one else. I’ll come up with a way to get in so I really only need the bubble to walk out the front door without a blood bath.”

“But my question is why do you have to save her. She’s already proven she won’t do the same for you.”

Cody’s face softened a little. She understood that from the outside loyalties and obligation looked like contradictory objectives. “What happened in Australia was Schiffe doing her job. It may not have looked like it but she was doing the best she could to protect me.” Echo scoffed. “Bottom line, is my exit going to be with the TB or without?”

“You’re going anyway?” Cody nodded. “Then we may as well use up our five minutes.”

“It’ll just be me.”

“Oh no. Your just ‘you’ days are over.”

“I’m not sure what I’m walking into. Besides we’re supposed to be in harmony in the subdivision remember.”

“Rachel Schiffe to you is the same thing as the Warka vase is to me. I don’t have to understand why I just need to trust you. I’m not arguing about this Cody we go in together.” Echo hoped her voice sounded more authoritative than she felt. She was always walking a fine line between pushing Cody along and pushing Cody over the edge.

“Fine. I’m going to send your staff shopping, we need a wardrobe change.”

****

Echo stared at her reflection in the mirror with disbelief. “Aren’t we going to stand out a little too much in a building full of Chinese business men?” Echo pulled at the hem of her short skirt.

“No fidgeting,” Cody said, as she buttoned Echo’s cropped suit jacket. “If you can’t be invisible than you have to be the centre of attention. No one suspects the conspicuous.”

“There’s conspicuous and then there’s…”

“And then there’s an eye-catching, strikingly beautiful woman that everyone will be too busy looking at to notice anything amiss.” Cody remarked zipping up her high heeled boots and pulling down her tight pants.

“You’re looking pretty striking yourself,” Echo said, as she trailed a finger down Cody’s suit vest neckline. With no shirt underneath it left little to the imagination. Echo had never seen Cody with her hair pulled tightly back and bright red lipstick. It was disconcerting but no less alluring than her usual khaki’s and tank top look.

“Your staff should be commended on how quickly they supplied us with the corporate call girl look.” Cody loaded her briefcase with a variety of weapons.

“Corporate call girl, slash one woman army.”

“Two women.” Cody handed over a small gun and the TB device. “Remember we have important documents for Lee Shen to sign.

“Which we must be there to witness.”

“That gets us to the lift. My contact gave me the code to get to the basement. You stay in the lift while I get Shciffe. We activate the TB and walk out. I don’t want to activate it before then, we only have just over five minutes. I don’t want to risk it.”

“Don’t they have cameras or metal detectors or something?”

“No metal detectors. Lee’s thugs have to blend in with actual business men. I’ve already uploaded a virus to the camera system. They’re going to experience cascade failures in about five minutes. The computer will tell them to reboot to repair. Thus presenting a perfect window for us.”

“And I thought I was always prepared for anything.”

“Use it or lose it. Got to keep my skills current.”

“Right.”

Cody noticed Echo’s hands were a little shaky. “Just stay in the lift, if I’m not back in five minutes I will find another way out. You use the TB. We’ll rendezvous back here. You should have Harry ready to go in case things get hot.” Echo didn’t look convinced.  “Hey I got this okay I’ve done this a thousand times before. Walk in like you own the place and let me take care of the rest.” Cody pulled Echo in for a kiss, she didn’t want to give Echo any more time to over think things. Echo could handle herself in most situations and she had proven fear wasn’t her weakness but this was a long way out of her comfort zone. Cody knew how she felt, she had been a fish out of water for months. But it wasn’t just empty words. Cody believed they could do this. After all, in her previous missions she didn’t have the advantage of controlling time.

“Ready,” Cody asked,

“As I’ll ever be.”

Chapter four

Strutting into the TNT building Cody took the lead like she had every right to be there. She tested her cover story on the receptionist who gave them permission to proceed to Lee Shen’s office despite the lack of appointment. Cody even winked at the security guards as she went into the lifts.

Echo held her breath as Cody entered the code. The lift started moving and Cody’s nonchalant mask fell as she pulled out her weapon.

“Leave the building it I don’t return in five minutes,” Cody ordered. Echo nodded in reply. She could only just hear Cody over the pounding in her chest and the adrenalin coursing through her veins.

****

Echo’s hand shook as she held the elevator doors open. It seemed like Cody had disappeared down the corridor hours ago. Gunfire pierced the silence. This was it, fight or flight. Despite Cody’s orders running was never an option. Echo activated the orb and headed towards the fracas. She pushed her body up against the wall forcing herself to put one foot in front of the other. Finally reaching the end of the long corridor she dared to poke her head around the corner. Without a moment’s thought she lunged for Cody enveloping her in the bubble as a hail of bullets stopped midair on the other side of the bubble. Cody’s immobilized return fire was about to hit its mark on one assailant and clip the arm of another.

Cody didn’t miss a beat, she grabbed Echo’s hand and ran over to Rachel. She was badly beaten and barely conscious. Together Echo and Cody dragged her to the relative safety of the elevator.

“Cody, I don’t feel so good,” Echo said, struggling to keep Rachel upright as sweat trickled down her forehead.

“We’re nearly out. You can make it,” Cody said confidently. She glanced down at her watch. Fifteen seconds to go.

“No…I…Really think something is wrong. Is it getting darker in here?” Echo fell to her knees.

“Cody?” Rachel quietly said as she slumped against Cody. “What’s going on?”

Cody pressed the button to stop the elevator. “God damn monks and their gifts.” Cody said reaching for the orb that was still clasped in Echo’s hand and turned the third tier. “Echo can you stand.” There was no response. Cody shook her shoulders.

“Cody it’s getting really dark,” Echo mumbled.

Cody grabbed the orb and deactivated it. “You have to fight this. I need you to stand up and walk out of here.” Echo’s eyes glazed over. “Please…” Echo slowly got to her feet.

“Rachel follow my lead,” Cody ordered. “Don’t lean so much on Echo.” Rachel was just as unresponsive. Cody tried to straighten her outfit and hit the button for the elevator to start gain.

In the seconds it took for the lift to reach the ground floor Cody ran through her options. She could take out the three guards and try to make a run for it. She would have greater success if she unloaded one her companions. Looking at the frailty of her accomplices Cody weighted up the chances of making it out of the building as slim to none. But Cody had spent most of her Air Force career working with those odds.

As the trio exited the lift Cody put her only possible exit plan into action. “Rachel, walk now!”  She hoped Echo was out of it enough to not react to her outrageous scheme. In perfect mandarin dialect of eastern Beijing Cody called out to the nearest guard.

“Please could you help us get to the car. Mr Shen retrieved my sister from Tow’s men.” Cody lurched towards the guard as if she was having great difficulty holding Rachel up. She didn’t want to give him any time to think. Tow and Shen were Chinese business men who shared the same ruthless tactics and methods of attaining power. They were fierce rivals and it was completely plausible they would resort to violence to get what they wanted.  “The car is just outside. I told Mr Shen we could get her there but she’s getting weaker.”

The guard looked unconvinced but he had Rachel’s full body weight to deal with. Cody positioned herself on his right so she was inches away from his weapon.

“Thank you we need to get her to a hospital.” When he signaled to the other guards to stay put Cody knew she had him. With the guard’s help they walked towards the door. “We are so grateful to have my sister. We owe everything to Mr Shen.”

They were only a few steps from the door when the guard’s cell started vibrating. Out of the corner of her eye Cody saw the other guards start to move towards the elevators.

“You obviously have more important things to deal with. We can take it from here.” Thankfully Echo moved in to take Rachel from the guard.

“Thank you,” Echo said, trying not to show the strain. The guard nodded and checked his cell. Echo turned her head to check on the commotion behind them.

“Eyes forward,” Cody said. “Not too fast, we’re not running from anything remember.”

It seemed to take an eternity to get to their car, Echo and Rachel collapsed into the back seat. In the rear vision mirror as Cody calmly pulled away she could see the guards start to surge towards the door with a man bleeding from the leg staggering behind.

Despite her casual demeanor Cody was relieved to see her contact’s car. At least something was going to plan.

“Why are we stopping?” Echo asked checking for pursuers.

“Time to deliver our cargo,” Cody said, nodding to the man parked in the car in front.

“What, now they want to help save her?” Echo said.

“Caught where you’re not supposed to be makes you a liability.” Cody opened the door.  “Extradited from the situation and she’s back to being a valuable asset again.”

“You taking her to Germany?” Cody asked the waiting man.

“Yeah. Straight to their hospital. I’ll take good care of her,” he said, helping Rachel out of the car.

“Wait,” Echo said. “Whatever you saw.’ She whispered in Rachel’s ear. “Or think you saw didn’t happen. Got it.”

“I saw nothing,” Rachel said, glancing down at the orb sitting on the back seat. “It’s not like I want to tell the story of how a scientist came to my rescue. Good to see you haven’t left the game completely,” Rachel said, grabbing Cody’s arm for support as they transferred her to the other car.

“Some people can’t seem to get by without me.”

“You need to get out of China. Shen has people everywhere.”

“Well if you let go of my arm I’ll get right on it.”

“Lynx…You look good.” It was said with a depth of sincerity that was out of character for Rachel Schiffe.

Cody gave her best crooked smile. “Well you don’t look good, so take care of yourself okay.”

“Thank you,” Rachel said, as she let go of Cody’s arm. “I owe you…Both.” She looked the most vulnerable Cody had even seen her. Cody shut the door and nodded to her contact.

The trip back to the airport was incident free. There were no henchmen to evade or tail’s to lose. But Cody wasted no time bundling Echo into the plane and ordering the pilot to depart immediately. She was relieved to see the Beijing landscape disappear as the jet ascended.

“You could have run you know,” Echo said, unbuckling so she could face Cody. “I would I have understood.” It was the first thing Echo said since dropping off Rachel.

“So could you.”

“Not a chance… When we were in the lift…”

“What is it?” Cody placed a reassuring hand on Echo’s leg.

“The darkness it was…It was seeping into me.”

“Like I said, damn monks and their gifts.”

Echo tried to smile but the corners of her mouth trembled a little. Cody gently stoked Echo cheek.

“It’s okay to be scared,” Cody assured her.

“You’re not.”

Cody drew her into a hug. “Since you came into my life I’m always scared.”

Echo pulled away. “That’s how I make you feel?”

“It’s okay. It’s a good thing.” Cody pulled Echo close again. “I’ve lived my life like I had nothing to lose. Being scared keeps me around.” Echo held her tighter.

****

The mountain looked even steeper than before. “You sure you’re okay to go up? I can do it myself,” Cody said, looking closely at Echo. “Are things still blurry?” Echo didn’t answer. “So that’s a yes?”

“I want to go.” Echo pushed past Cody and started up the mountain to the temple.

Their pace was slower and Cody kept her eye on Echo the whole way but she didn’t stop. A different monk greeted them at the door with a nod. He silently took the case containing the orb and trotted off.

Echo bowed as Tatowa came to the door. “Please sit,” he said, helping Echo to a stone stool. “You came close to the edge.”

“Yes,” Echo said.

“Will she be okay?” Cody asked.

“She just needs to readjust.”

“I hope this doesn’t reflect badly on Discovery Projects. We are so honored to be given this gift just because I came close…”

“You don’t have to justify your time in the subdivision.  We would not be giving the orb to you if we didn’t trust you. Your obligation is to return the gift. If you are capable of giving it up then your priorities are agreeable to us.” He nodded to a waiting monk who scurried off and returned with all the monks. “We will help you readjust.” The assembled monks circled Echo and Cody. Echo closed her eyes as they began to chant. When she opened them again everything was in focus.

Epilogue

The champagne spilled over the tall glasses. “To being back on home soil.” Echo raised her glass.

“How about… To being in one piece back on home soil,” Cody said, as they clinked glassed. Echo took a much larger sip than Cody.

“Now do you see why I did it?” Echo asked hoping Cody had been moved by the welcome they received at the museum.

“I understand why you did it. I understand that you and I will always make different decisions.” Cody put down her glass. “The projects you take have to date, matched good intentions with good outcomes. It’s a luxury.”

“It’s a necessity.” Echo took another sip. “I’m not going to run DP any other way. I’m not going to do bad things for good reasons or vice versa.”

“Sounds good in theory.”

“Believe it.” Cody gave her ‘whatever’ look. “Try to believe it.”

“You’re the boss.”

“I’ll tell you what I understand. No matter whether you have all the time in the world or none, you Cody Bass, will always choose to sacrifice your life for others.” Echo pulled her in for a kiss. “I don’t care what the monks say. We make different decisions but still remain in perfect harmony.”

“To…” Cody began.

“Good outcomes,” Echo finished.

The end

For lovers of words and women.

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