Chapter 7, Part 3

James’ earlier assessment of Josh had been rather off the mark. When earlier, the egghead in the corner had caught on and sealed the meteorite sample, the agent had thought that he had earned a brief window of opportunity, and looked to Faye to take quick action.

It turned out that the situation was much more forgiving than that. After almost a minute, Josh was showing no signs of recovery. Now, the boy was on the floor, lying seemingly inert in a fetal position. All was quiet from him, as even the broken muttering had ceased after about half a minute.

For James, this was no reason to relax. It only meant that failure at this point would weigh on him all the more. For all he knew, the teen could become functional at any moment, and once more assert dominance over the entire room. If that happened, James would have to confront the fact that he had given up ample time to secure the metacognite. That he had let his attention be pulled away from his mission by Faye and her disturbing change in attitude.

What was really unnerving for the former soldier was having to face the proof of how much Faye meant to him. Her skills, and his watchfulness, had never failed to prevent any situation that would compromise her. Now that she was obviously afflicted by some malicious, confusion-causing effect, the detached and rational part of James could only bear witness to his own actions with a foreboding sense of disappointment.

The HFP was primed, he was on his feet, and Josh was in reach. And yet…

Where he should have been keeping eyes on the target, he was turning to look at Faye, hoping to find some clue as to what ailed her. Where he should have exerted his authority to make decisions regarding situations that could present legitimate threats to her safety, he took time to hear her speak.

In witnessing himself act so indecisively and sub-optimally, James had an unwelcome revelation thrust upon him. He had thought himself the sort of person that honored his debts. That his loyalty had been rightfully bought by the one who had restored his life from the brink of oblivion. He had thought that he had the heart of a soldier – one that followed orders and didn’t ask questions above its station.

Maybe he had such values, but when tested against what really anchored him, they failed in the end to tip the scales.

James was loyal to Faye. It was the only explanation for why he would not immediately dismiss her as compromised when hearing such a ridiculous demand as to be confined within an HFP field with the most dangerous metacognite they had ever encountered.

The grimly intelligent orphan he had met all those years ago had been the perfect operative. She had never done anything outside of what James and any other reasonable agent would consider efficient, by-the-book, excellence in the name of the Peripheral Branch and the Central Government. Without anything differentiating loyalty to Faye from loyalty to his station, James had been unaware that such bonds had formed.

In fact, safety officers were not meant to become attached to the empath investigators they were paired with. Besides their obvious duty to physically protect their partners, there were two more reasons Director Derrick Jones had structured the field teams of his branch in such a manner.

The first was something known as the Vicarious Effect. It was no surprise that the nightmare-stimulating sleep chambers the investigators spent their nights in caused quite a strain on the mind. Every single investigator, with one exception, had eventually become mentally unfit for duty. It was hypothesized, and confirmed shortly after, that putting a warm personality with a generally positive temperament in close proximity with an empath would increase their mental fortitude and thus extend their usefulness.

The second reason had to do with the nature of how investigators behaved upon becoming unfit for duty. Often times they would turn rogue and attempt to sabotage the organization that had brought them to such a state. With minds bent and clouded by ravaged subconsciousnesses, they could not be reasoned with, or made to remember their former selves and the ideals that had led them to make the sacrifices they had for the Central Government.

In these instances, it was up to the physically imposing Safety Officers to end the threat of the rogue agents. Despite being forged in battle, the former God of War had a gentle personality that easily qualified him to be a Safety Officer and apply a Vicarious Effect to his partner. However, due to the ‘investments’ director Jones had made in him, he had been kept in reserve.

It was only when hints of a remarkably attuned empath at a federal orphanage had been uncovered by the director, and that orphan had shown aptitudes off the charts, had James then been assigned. His orders had been clear from the start. He was to protect her on missions, be a comforting presence at all times, and most importantly, never grow attached. Prodigy or not, eventually she would bend like the others, or completely break like that one. If she ever went rogue, he would need to do what was necessary.

James had pushed such thoughts out of his mind like a citizen shutting the door on a salesperson – without much difficulty. As a result, he was hopelessly unprepared for his current situation, the first time in which Faye had deviated from flawlessness as an agent.

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