‘You’re sure that you’re not about burst into flames?’ James asked, grunting as he pulled himself up towards the next hand hold, the sky grey and heavy above them. He check his grip and reach for the next crevice, his feet fighting for purchase beneath him.
Sasha ignored the comment and continued pulling herself up the cliff-face, setting the pace. They’d been at it since the early hours, the watery light from the sun following them through the clouds until it disappeared altogether, mocking her efforts to conquer this one little mountain. Her ponytail swung in the breeze, tickling her shoulder.
‘I mean it’s not like you’re an active agent anymore,’ James said, his breath slightly harsh as he struggled to lift himself. ‘You’re all rubber stamps and colour coded blocks on a map.’
He adjusted his grip and released the cliff with one hand, patting at his belt to find his water bottle. Finding it he tipped his head back and swigged at the dregs, scowling as he found it mostly empty.
‘Who’s to even say that map’s even accurate anymore,’ he asked, fixing the bottle back in place. ‘You’re the one always telling me that the topside is changing faster than we can anticipate.
‘There is nothing wrong with my map,’ Sasha grunted, jaw clenched as she swung her body upwards, legs dangling beneath her. ‘It was updated just last week. I checked the data myself.’
‘Then what in hell is Greth doing on the map?’
‘A collection of small towns on the western border of Germany. Not the strongest of alliances; it may take one, two attacks before someone else assumes control and we have to update the map again,’ she said.
‘So not that important then.’ said James. ‘Why put it on the map if it’s going to be gone soon?’
If she hadn’t been fifteen thousand feet above sea level, Sasha would have punched him on the shoulder. Instead she settled for a scowl that James wouldn’t even see.
‘I did not say that it wasn’t important,’ she said, wondering why she had agreed to take him with her. She supposed it might have something to do with her mother, and the repeated complaints from Grant that if her ‘ridiculous excuse for a younger brother did not stop calling, then he would be handing in his résumé.’
‘How can it be important if it can’t even withstand a single attack?’ James muttered, his voice queitening as she managed to put some distance between them. ‘I thought you were worried about that cult over in Burgundy. The ones who claim to be direct descendants of William the Conqueror. Didn’t they just get hold of a whole cache of nuclear weapons.’
‘No,’ said Sasha. ‘They got hold of what they thought was a cache of nuclear weapons, and we got a hold of facial structures for sixteen of their members. But Greth’s importance stems from the same mould as the one that makes keeping you away from my assistant a priority.’
‘I told you!’ James whined. ‘If Grant just gave me a chance he’d-’
‘Have evidence to confirm his current opinion of you.’ Sasha didn’t have to look down to know that her brother was pouting. He had been his go to expression ever since he’d discovered that beating his sister in a fight was no longer an option. Their mother still blamed Thomas Frost for the bloodying her precious son’s perfect nose twelve years ago and Thomas was too afraid of her to point out any different.
‘Look,’ Sasha said, holding back the shudder threatening at the top of her spine. ‘You’ll find someone eventually. They’ll be some guy out there happy to call you his boyfriend. Green hair, freckles and all!’
Mass devastations and warring nations she could deal with, but love, relationships and romantic advice were all taboo subjects as far as Sasha was concerned.
‘Feeling ill?’ asked James, the grin clear in his voice.
‘A little,’ she admitted.
‘Want to punch something?’
‘That would be helpful,’ she said. She heard him chuckle beneath her but it quickly died away.
‘Are you really going to force me onto a mission with one of your units?’ he asked.
Sasha hesitated before grabbing at the next handhold, her fingers hovering over the rock.
‘I’m not forcing you to go; I’m advising you that it will be good for you.’
‘As director that’s basically the same thing. When you say jump the entire organisation leaps a foot into the air.’
‘And what organisation would that be?’ Sasha asked. ‘At the moment it feels like we’re losing more people than we’re taking on.’
‘I thought you sent envoys to the other outposts?’
Sasha’s grip tightened on the cliff-face.
‘I did,’ she said. ‘No one has responded and the envoys haven’t returned.’
‘That doesn’t mean they won’t return at all,’ James pointed out. ‘You need to have a bit more hope sister.’
‘And you brother,’ Sasha muttered, ‘need to have a little less.’ She felt a pulse of guilt at the thought of killing her brother’s last shred of innocence. He would learn once he’d been out with a unit just how brutal the world had become. Leaders slaughter one another for power and you couldn’t trust anyone, no matter how good they were because there was every chance that the following day they would be a corpse instead of a person. This world, she thought, will end us all.