Albert DeNostri was in his office, going through contracts, trying to decide which to sign and which to send back. All the legalese made his head hurt. He took a break to stare out the window at the rolling fields of the nearly thousand-hectacre farmland in the foothills of the Pyrenees that the DeNostri now called home. Remote, private and spacious, the estate offered his people a chance to find their way in the world. However, with freedom came bills, and bills required them to work. With a sigh, he turned attention back to the contracts.
His holotank beeped, alerting him that a message had arrived. Next to nobody had this number. Absently, he spun around in his chair and, using the tip of a claw, he activated the field.
The man who appeared floating over his desk was immediately familiar: Carl Casternavas, the leader of the telepaths. Up until a year ago, the DeNostri had lived in the same PKF complex as the telepaths. The nearly five hundred genies created in Project Superman by the United Nations Peace Keeping Force, had trained together and worked together for nearly twenty years.
As soon as Carl’s image flickered into existence in the tank, Albert was hit with a wave of emotion so strong, he felt the fur along his spine stand on end and his ears go flat against his head. Behind him, his tail lashed and his claws flexed from his fingers. Clenching his fists to try to control the reaction, he said, “Mon Dieu, Carl! Qu’est que c’est?”
Carl’s vivid green eyes met his and the rage blurred into sorrow.
“I am sorry to hear about Althea,” Albert said when Carl did not speak. “She was friends with Eveline, back when we were living….” Albert’s voice drifted off when he realized that Carl was not calling about the young telepath. “I was also sorry to hear about Gerry. He was a friend to all of the genies.”
“Jackie,” Carl choked out.
“Jacqueline?” Albert asked. “She’s not here. She’s on a job…” Albert paused, remembering the conversation he had had with Jacqueline before she had left, three days ago. It had been tense and brief.
“Carl needs me,” she had told him. “And I am going.”
“But,” Albert had argued, “With the crazies in New York, with what is going on with the telepaths, it’s safer, here.”
“You don’t need me,” Jacqueline had said. “No one knows where we are.”
“Then let’s keep it that way!” Albert had demanded. After a moment he added, “And I do need you.”
Jacqueline had turned her back on him as she opened the chest where she kept her field gear: utility belts, pistols, knives, grenades, loose fitting clothes, hats. He had stared at her tawny fur and the black stripe that started between her eyes and ended in a tuft at the tip of her tail, as she had opened the pistol and checked the magazine.
He too had been trained for field work. All of the genies had been trained by their PKF masters. But where he was the champion of the mat, Jacqueline had a gift for the field. She and Carl and the Elite cyborg Chris Summers had dozens of ghost missions behind them. Albert, on the other hand, had only been deployed a few times. He did not mind. Training the young ones was what he was best at.
Those days were past. Eight months ago, they had been allowed to move back to France. Three months ago, the Eight Amendment to the Statement of Principals had given the genies their freedom and citizenship. Now, the DeNostri chose their own missions.
Jacqueline had zipped her supplies into a duffle bag and turned around. “This will just take a few days, Albert,” she had said more gently.
Albert knew he was defeated. He had dropped back on the king sized bed Jacqueline shared with him some nights. “Come back,” he had said. “Soon.”
Smiling, she had stepped forward and tipped his head up so he had looked into her eyes. Flexing her claws so they scratched his back through his fur, the way she knew he liked it, she had leaned down and kissed him. “Soon,” she had agreed.
All of that came back to him in a flash. Albert stared at the image of Carl Casternavas in the holotank. “Jacqueline is on a job with you,” Albert said slowly. The fur on his spine was up again, sensing something was wrong.
Carl shook his head. “I’m sorry, Albert.”
“Oh,” Albert said. His claws made scratch marks in the varnish on his desk. “How?” he managed to ask. His voice sounded like it belonged to someone else.
“Hunting waldo,” Carl said.
Albert shivered. Albert broke from Carl’s gaze and stared at his hands.
“I’m sorry,” Carl said again.
Feeling more sorrow than rage, Albert slumped back in the chair and stared into the holotank. “Did you get it?” he asked.
“What?” Carl said.
“What you were looking for. On the mission. Did you get it?”
Carl was silent for a moment. Then he said, “Yeah. Yeah we got it.”
“Good,” Albert said, flicking his eyes up to meet Carl’s. The wash of sadness intensified. God, the telepaths were creepy. He did not miss living with them. “Thank you for telling me,” he said.
Carl nodded and broke the connection.
For a long time, Albert did not move.