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Question of Conscience

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In two more minutes, he was leaving; he had already decided that. It was a slow night, and his presence really wasn't needed. Besides, he lived in Section. . . . It wasn't like they couldn't find him, if they needed him.

Birkoff logged a few numbers from a sim. unfolding in front of him, but his mind wasn't on the program. All he was really thinking about right now was himself.

He had spent somewhere between a third to a half of his life in Section; he liked to tell himself, however, like most of its members, that he didn't remember his life before it, . . . but he knew that was a lie. That moron Greg had reminded him of it again.

He had been too much like the just-recruited computer genius himself once . . . well, except that he hadn't been a tenured professor; hell, they hadn't even let Birkoff skip a grade. He had always been too tied up in his computer to really put forth much effort in his classes. He was what the teachers liked to call "untapped potential"; it helped them avoid the word "lazy."

He hadn't been slacking, though; he had simply been too caught up in pushing the boundaries of computer logic to worry about conjugating some damn verb or another. He had been cocky, too, convinced that he could outsmart any system--break through any firewall, and--like any good hacker--he loved creating challenges for himself.

It was those very challenges, though, which had landed him here--one too many trespasses into the wrong people's systems. It wasn't like he was going to *do* anything with the information, but it was only after several hours with Madeline that they had begun to believe that, and--by then--it was too late; he was a ghost.

Once Birkoff had been fully integrated into Section, he had checked up on his family once or twice--long distance, of course--just to see if they still remembered him; they did, and they didn't. Like any family trying to cope with the disappearance of a child, they still clung to the hope that he was alive and would return one day; at the same time, though--all these years later, they had moved beyond him, in some ways. It was a survival technique, of course. He understood; he had had to adopt a similar one to deal with their memory many years ago.

Birkoff sighed slightly and logged out of his terminal. He was planning to get out of here tonight, even if he had no idea where he was headed. He needed to talk to someone about the conflicts the last week or so had stirred up in him. His choice of confidants was limited, however; for as long as he had been in Section, he really had little one-on-one contact with any of its members.

He tried to size up his possibilities; Madeline was the best analyst, but she was a ludicrous choice, kind of like asking the Marquis de Sade for psychological advice. Operations was his boss and would see his problems as a weakness to be solved--*not* a good thing to be in Section; his staff, too, was out for a slight variation on the same reason. Michael, furthermore, had always treated him relatively well, but he wasn't exactly a picture of mental health himself; he could just imagine the blank stare he would be greeted with if he tried to tell the older man his problems. Walter, as well, was only really good for advice on women or guns.

He shook his head, as he began to walk toward Section's exit; where did he think he was heading, anyway? Gail seemed like the person he *should* turn to, but she really wasn't much on deep personal conversations. Deep conversations about computers or pop culture, sure, but not about herself or him. If she had been big on that, he would have known about the little embezzling fiasco which had landed her in Section in the first place, and his whole confession to Madeline wouldn't have been necessary. . . . He was still feeling pretty guilty about that one; he just hoped their relationship would survive that guilt.

It wasn't like their interaction was particularly deep, but he didn't really want to lose it. He got to his car and got in, ready to drive . . . wherever . . . just away from Section. He and Gail weren't in love with each other, but he did care for her, . . . and it was *a lot* more for him than the simple fact that she had taken his knowledge of human sexuality from the theoretical to the practical. If they lived real lives, he would hope that she would one day find the perfect guy for her and live happily ever after. Since, however, they belonged to Section, he just wished her a long life. . . . They could both enjoy their relationship, while it lasted.

Birkoff stopped at a red light and looked around him. Where the hell was he heading, anyway? Who was left? He shook his head. "The obvious choice, nimrod," he thought, chastising himself. "Nikita." He guessed, really, that he had been planning on going to her from the beginning. He had never been to her apartment before, but he knew where she lived; he knew where *everyone* lived--or could find out. Section wasn't exactly the sort of organization which encouraged social calls on its members, however.

He wondered for a second whether she would be alone and then decided that she undoubtedly would be. After all, Michael seemed to be the only guy she had ever really had eyes for, and Birkoff couldn't imagine finding him there. Even if there was something physical going on between them--which, given Nikita's usual bad humor with Michael and his sullenness with her, he guessed there wasn't--Michael was a whole lot more discrete than that.

They were a weird couple, really, Birkoff reflected, as he drove. Half of the time, he couldn't make out whether they loved or hated each other; it seemed to go in shifts. And Michael could be such an *asshole* to her, too; how any woman could put up with being driven to tears by what seemed to be calculated cruelty so often, he would never know.

Still, it wasn't some seduction Michael was running with her; Birkoff had seen enough of those mission--*all* the parts of those missions--to be able to see the difference with him. He shook his head. Even though he was sure the older man's feelings were real--a near-first for Michael--that didn't stop Section's top op. from treating Nikita like his worst enemy.

They could both be so obtuse, sometimes, as well. Jesus, the things they missed with one another! At times, Birkoff wondered whether they were *trying* to misunderstand each other's points.

He sighed, wondering how he had gotten onto this train of thought; he guessed that he was trying not to think about his own problems. He pulled into Nikita's garage.

He was curious to see how Nikita would react to his showing up at her apartment. He hoped she wouldn't be angry. If the look on her face when she left earlier was any indication, though, she needed to talk as well; this was a chance for both of them.

A few minutes later, he approached Nikita's door cautiously. He didn't hear much movement behind it. He knocked.

A few seconds later, a very sweaty, ragged-out looking Nikita appeared at the door. She seemed surprised to see him. "Birkoff!" She looked around the hallway behind him. "Is everything alright?" she asked worriedly.

"With work--yeah. With me--no." He paused. "Can I come in?"

She shook herself out of her slight shock. "Oh yeah, sure." She stepped back to let him in.

He looked around at the apartment, as she closed the door. "It's not what I expected."

"What did you expect?"

"I don't know." He shook his head slightly and then looked at her. "Something a little less sterile." She gave a rather sad half-smile. "Sorry, I didn't come by to criticize your decorating."

She leaned against the refrigerator. "Why *did* you come by?"

"I just wanted to talk."

Nikita looked a little surprised. She and Birkoff were friendly, but they didn't have too many heart-to-hearts; he must really be upset. "Okay." She looked down at herself. "Look, I've been working out; I probably smell like a pig." She refocused on him. "Let me grab a quick shower, and I'll be back down."

Birkoff nodded.

"Help yourself to anything in the `fridge," she told him on her way upstairs. "I'll be back in a couple of minutes."

"Alright," Birkoff agreed.

He looked around at the living room, once she was gone; it was littered with work-out equipment. "She must really be upset," he thought. He looked to his right for a second and caught sight of part of the reason for both of their sleepless nights; Gregory Hillinger was now--as Birkoff had once been--just a face on a milk carton.

***********

A half hour or so later, Birkoff and Nikita were sitting in a fairly-deserted corner of a local burger restaurant. "So, what'd you wanna talk about?" she asked, playing with the straw in her milkshake.

Birkoff looked up at her over his overly-stuffed burger. "Greg Hillinger." She looked down, and he paused, looking out the window. "Do you ever wonder if you've done the right thing, Nikita?"

She gave a very sad smile. "All the time."

He looked back at her, as she met his eyes. "Greg's a jerk, y'know? I mean, I checked his file, and you would not *believe* some of the stunts he's pulled. Did you know he once changed the birth records for the daughter of a professor he didn't like? She was going through this big divorce, and--by the time they straightened things out--her ex-husband had taken the girl out of the country. . . . She never saw her again."

Nikita was focusing on Birkoff's problems to avoid thinking about her own; his information had confused, though. "How'd they know it was Greg?"

"He admitted it--even bragged about it. Apparently, he said that it would teach her never to give a student a B again." She looked horrified. "Did it?"

"Yeah--she committed suicide two months later." Birkoff shook his head and leaned forward. "That's what I mean. He's a creep, and he's never had to take responsibility for anything he's done before." He leaned closer still, beginning to whisper. "But he still doesn't deserve to be in Section." He mouthed the last word.

"You're feeling guilty."

He leaned back a little and paused. "Sorta. I mean, God knows, I didn't tell him to upload that stupid virus. . . . Still," he shook his head, "I shouldn't have given him the kind of access I did; he led me right where he wanted me."

"But you had a reason for giving him access." Nikita sounded confident.

"Yeah, we needed the information right then, . . . but I should have kept a better eye on him." He sighed and took a bite of his burger.

She watched him eat for a second. "Why didn't you?"

Birkoff looked at her and then played with an onion ring.

She looked at him fondly--sadly. "He reminds you of yourself, doesn't he?"

"Yeah," he admitted. "Only I wasn't that big a jerk."

She sighed and looked down, taking a sip of her drink. "Birkoff, did you . . . tell Madeline that Greg was missing?"

He leaned back and sighed, looking down, much of his appetite disappearing. He nodded.

"Why'd you do it, then?" she asked analytically, refocusing on him. She sipped at her drink.

He shrugged.

"Did you do it out of jealousy?" she half-whispered.

"I'm not jealous," he looked up at her and then realized he had spoken a bit too loudly. He lowered his voice. "His knowledge is overly specialized; he'll need retraining just to be of any use."

She smiled. "That's what you're afraid of, though, isn't it--that you turned him in out of jealousy?"

"Yeah," Birkoff admitted, looking down and disconsolately shoving an onion ring in his mouth.

"So, was it--the reason?" she pressed him.

He swallowed, pausing. "Maybe," he said quietly. "I don't want it to be, but I wonder whether that's part of it." He looked up at her. Then, his mind switched gears. "Did I get you in trouble, when they found Greg?"

She shook her head slightly. "No more than I'm usually in." Madeline's warning the other day had come not long after a similar one by Operations. Sometimes, it seemed the whole bloody Section had her under the microscope.

He shook his head, genuinely apologetic. "I'm sorry, Nikita. I didn't mean to."

She shook her head again and looked away from him. "Don't worry about it, Birkoff." She smiled ruefully. "I'm not sure how you avoid betrayal in this place."

Birkoff nodded slightly, wishing he could disagree. He paused, looking away. "Greg's stupid, but he doesn't deserve this."

She sighed. "Don't get down on yourself. I'm as much to blame as you are."

He looked back at her. "How?"

She refocused on him. "Remember who mommy dearest was, the other day?"

He shook his head. "Yeah, but you're not to blame." She didn't respond. "Remember who was trying to *save* him--to get him to go home?" She rolled her eyes, not really listening. "Jesus, Nikita, you've got the world's most overdeveloped conscience. You're just a cog in this machine; you don't make the plans."

She laughed in self-disgust and looked at him. "Oh, `I was just following orders'? Didn't work at Nuremburg." They both looked at each other for a minute and then laughed slightly. "Alright, maybe I do take the problems of . . . the whole organization on my shoulders, sometimes," she admitted.

"Duh?" he threw in.

She laughed again but then sobered quickly; she looked to his side. "I just don't want to be like . . ." She trailed off.

He nodded. "I know, but you're not. You're different. . . . You always have been."

She smiled up at him. A second later, she spoke again. "Look, Birkoff, I don't know what made you do it. I do know, though, that the fact that you're still examining your motives in this place is healthy. It's the day either of us stops doing that that we're doomed."

He smiled slightly and nodded; the moral high ground was always hard to find in Section, but he guessed the ones who were still looking for it were okay. "Onion ring?" he offered.

She laughed and took it. In some odd way, by looking at Birkoff's problems, she had managed to get a new perspective on her own. She knew she was still in danger of being corrupted by Section, but--with some constant vigilance--maybe she would be okay. "So," she leaned forward conspiratorially. "What's up with you and Gail?"

His eyes flashed mischievously at her. "Wouldn't you like to know?"

She laughed and stole another onion ring. Then, they spent the rest of the early evening chatting, forgetting for awhile that they were the property of Section One.