Back again with not only another story (as is usual on a Wednesday) but a fourth part to the ongoing series. If you haven’t read the first three parts they are: Overcharge, Fragmented Friends and Lost Asunder (really hoping these links will work and send you to the right pages). Previously I said I might not finish the series (planned to be six parts) but I’ve changed my mind and think I almost certainly will. So stay tuned for those. Anyway, I’m getting ahead of myself so feel I should let you know this is a longer one at about 14,700 words. Can’t say much more than that because it’s an ongoing thing, so enjoy!

Dana had not been expecting Sanjiv to be as receptive to her recounting of the facts, as she knew them, as he was. However, there is no doubt that she is quite relieved that he reacted in the manner he did.

Her expectation was that she was going to run through the details only for him to flat out refuse them being truth, turn his back on her and walk away into the sunset without so much as a second thought.

That, she thinks, says more about her than it does about the man she had been incorrectly judging. Alas, she would not go so far as to say that with her having informed him of the what she knew that the relationship between her, the director of the agency which oversees the running and independence of the simulation, and her former friend Sanjiv could be categorised as repaired. Too much has happened between them for the re-emergence of Warren, though lost, to fix what has been broken overnight. And it has been exactly that, a single night. For right now they are headed back to the city.

Dana while grateful she isn’t forced to hike back alone in what would become scorching heat or place in a call for an emergency pickup on an unsecured line, she would have to admit this is uncomfortable. Ultimately, the director thought if Sanjiv would be returning with them then he would be doing so as not the sole other person to serve as company. Is that really your concern here? Sadly, as is often the case in life things can and do change rather quickly. The ambush upon her convoy was proof enough of that and there is every chance that whoever was behind that attack could be part of a grander conspiracy to stop her saving her friend. But why is the question she finds herself asking and unable to discern an answer to. It makes little sense for the only enemy of that time was Bartholomew and he died that day when they thought Warren did too. But Warren isn’t dead, so does that not mean that…

So many questions, she thinks to herself while wedged hard into the front passenger seat alongside Sanjiv. Every so often he half glances her way. The action has not escaped her notice. Does anything? Yes, the ambush. Apart from that because how could I have seen that coming? How could you not? She doesn’t agree with her subconscious and its antagonism, so elects for the easy way out, to bury the thoughts. A sigh escapes her lips while doing so. Again Sanjiv glances her way. He wants to say something. That much is clear but as to whether he will, well only he is able to decide that. It’s not like Sanjiv to keep his mouth shut. At least it isn’t for the version of the man she’d known shortly before they went their separate ways. It would be more accurate to say, she feels, when he stomped off.  Yet it has not eluded Dana that it is she who has been wrong. Sanjiv always said and held out hope that Warren wasn’t dead. She’d like to make a similar proclamation but to do so would be inaccurate. No, it would be wrong! OK OK, I know. It would be wrong. Again, her brain seems insistent to use anything not to its fancy to initiate a war. It’s exhausting and with as little rest as she has gotten the prospect is not one she wishes to do anything with other than skirt.

Then think about something else! She does, shoving everything out of her head. Her eyes close so she might better concentrate on achieving her aim. Its part of an old technique she learned when she was younger. Unfortunately, there is a side effect to performing this technique and it soon burbles to the fore bringing memories of Warren. A smile slips across her lips soon after. It’s only a slight one and rests across the side of her face hidden from Sanjiv’s glances. Not a conscious decision but more than likely a learned habit from being in the position she has for… She can’t recall. To be honest the years have morphed into a single almost endless blob of time. She casts any concern a lack of definition in terms of timescales brings forth in favour of focusing in on her memories of Warren. Her hopes they won’t turn negative, painful… She stops knowing that if she presses on down this road this will become a self fulfilling prophecy.

When finally she feels at ease again, level would be her best description, she peels her eyes open. Ahead of them is the same arrow straight asphalt road stretching out over the horizon. How long into the journey they are is lost on the director. She could ask but feels uncomfortable at the thought of doing so. Hence, that is why she instead shifts about in her seat checking to see if any of her muscles and joints have seized. They haven’t, it’s a good sign but also not. She doesn’t elaborate beyond that.

Her gaze shifts to the dash mounted clock. A quick calculation follows resulting in another sigh. This time through her nostrils and because they are only a couple hours into this drive back to civilization. She’s never been an outdoorsy type. She’s a city girl and thrives on metropolises. It’s why she hasn’t a clue how Sanjiv has coped out here, or wherever it is he has been, because it certainly hasn’t been a big city that much is for sure. And while she might have been remarkably open, for being the director, the same cannot be said of him. He’s kept quiet, deathly so. Not at all like the man he’d been when… Well, that isn’t surprising really, she must admit. Warren’s death had affected them both in profound ways. It strikes the director that she has been no less obsessive in regards to her role than Sanjiv was in his beliefs.

Sometime later Dana goes to speak only to be shockingly beaten to the punch by Sanjiv who queries, “How long did you know about Warren before…?”

There is no conclusion to his question. Rather, it trails off. Not that the remaining few words intended to be spoken are necessary for Dana to comprehend what he is asking her. It’s obvious really. Yet, she had not expected the query to be uttered in the first place. Never? She cannot say if she never expected it to be spoken. Just that she did not expect it right now. Not that him wanting to know shocks her because it doesn’t. It’s a fair question. She thinks she would ask it to if their roles were reversed. You wouldn’t have run away! Dana swallows hard hearing that though in her head. She can’t say as to where that accusation has come from but finds its sudden arrival concerning. Better to ignore it and move on is her conclusion and so she does exactly that. Her focus returned to the question levelled at her not long ago.

“I placed the call right after I was told, Sanjiv.” Dana’s voice is calm, as he would expect it to be. After all, she is the director. He wishes he could but alas he cannot conclude that she is lying. She might be. He really can’t be sure he’d know as well as he used to when… Things have changed, time has elapsed, the world has moved on. But Warren is alive! That thought alone fills him with the energy of an exploding firework. Honestly, his motivation has never been as incalculable as this. At least not as far as he can recall anyway and that is saying something he feels for he has spent the last decade plus looking for answers and leads. He wonders how anyone can seek answers when they don’t know the questions and yet that is precisely what he has been doing.

“Don’t you think it’s a little convenient?” Are the next words out the middle aged man’s mouth as he sits behind the steering wheel of the old muscle car.

“No I don’t.” Dana takes offence to his accusation and makes it abundantly clear via not only her stern tone but her furrowed brow that that is how she feels.

“Really? It’s been a long time. Why now? What changed? Something had to because from what you’ve told me of what some of your subordinates found, the code materialised out of thin air. I’d call that suspicious. Why now? Why not a couple years after that day? Or months?”

“I told you what ‘changed’ as you want to put it. Nothing in the simulation changed other than that fragments of code are being consolidated.” The director reiterates. She’s irritated by the insinuation that she’s been fooled. Wouldn’t be the first time; remember the ambush? Shut up, you’re not helping.

“But what are these fragments? How did they come about?” Sanjiv might have been told but a full and proper explanation has not been forthcoming as to how they came to be in the first place. That is what he is after. Why does Dana not want to say? Is it because these fragments are left over from Bartholomew’s antics?

“It’s…complicated.” Dana’s shoulders drop.

The story isn’t so complicated and long that she could not recount it during this journey. It’s more she doesn’t want to for she does hold some blame in what happened. After all, she was then like she is now the director and so regardless of the fragmentations being perpetuated by one employee’s reckless actions the blame ultimately falls upon her shoulders. Sure, punishments had been doled out and yet with the revelation that Warren is on one of those fragments it strikes her that she should have had them checked. Guilt, that is what she is feeling, and it’s made worse because at one time she’d issued a mandate that all code fragments be purged. Had the admin at the time agreed she would have been the cause of Warren’s second death. Not that they ever likely would have known had it been carried out.

“Director Code for, I’m not willing to share. Got it. Good to see little has changed. You’re as secretive as ever, Dana. Next you’ll be demanding I refer to you by title or as ma’am.” Sanjiv’s tone is accusatory with some mocking thrown in for good measure, and while Dana finds his words unfair she cannot bring herself to blame him. For there is no doubt that she is the one who pushed him away when she’d ordered him to give up on his investigations or leave. He took the latter option, as she knew he would, and since that day Dana has been alone. No friends, no confidants, nothing but her own conclusions from which to issue mandates to those below her in the pecking order of the agency. What a miserable existence of a life you have. Shut up!

“Is this how it’s going to be?” Dana asks finally, following a long multi-mile period of silence that has hung in the air between them.

The silence might not have been so painful if Sanjiv’s car had background noise coming out of its ancient speaker system. Whether it is capable the director cannot say, but if long silences broken only by accusations and arguments are going to be the norm throughout this drive then Dana thinks she might elect attempting to get some sleep. She’d check in but the ambush caused some damage and she is unable to access her emails and or anyone else as a result. At any other time she might have called it a blessing in disguise, but stuck in this old knacker of a car with a man she knew a lifetime ago, no that’s not a blessing at all, far from it.

Sanjiv shrugs only to soon after admit, “I don’t know. I wish I did.”

It’s the first time Dana has heard Sanjiv sound like he did back when… when Warren was alive. It seems they both are uncomfortable being in the situation that they are. The director takes some solace in that but hopes changing the subject might ease the air of awkwardness.

“Who do you think those men that ambushed me were?”

Sanjiv turns his head fully to look at her for a couple seconds before turning back to fix his eyes upon the boring road, the edges of which are crumbling. Occasionally, a truck rumbles past them going in the opposite direction. When finally he speaks, both hands wrapped around the thin steering wheel, he says, “I wish I knew more than this but, they’re part of some secret group. Very hush hush sort. Not government, I know that much for sure. But I’ve been tracking them, when I can, hoping to get back to whoever is at the top of the pyramid, haven’t got there yet.” A muscle below Sanjiv’s bottom lip spasms to reveal the disdain he holds for his failures.

“You’ve been doing this alone?” The director already knows the answer but sometimes it is best to pretend you aren’t some all knowing entity.

“Yeah I have.” He bites his tongue. What Sanjiv wants to say, to add to his short reply is that he wouldn’t have had to if Dana hadn’t forced him out of the agency because of his ‘obsession,’ as she dubbed it. Alas, tensions are strained enough between the pair and so he has decides better of it, for now. Things might change. He might need a trump card, a stabbing blow, to knock her off balance at a moment most opportune for him.

“That can’t have been easy Sanjiv, I’m sorry.” The apology catches the middle aged man sat in the driver’s seat of his old muscle car off-guard. It’s why he glances her way, face marked with surprise. The expression lasts only moments and right after he returns his eyes to the road. Never in a million years did he think he’d hear an apology out of the director’s mouth.

A couple seconds of consideration lead him to believe that Dana wasn’t speaking as the director of an agency that oversees the virtual world but as… friend seems wrong and yet what other word for it is there?

She’s stumped me! Is this part of some game? I don’t know. How do I respond? I don’t know that either! Because he doesn’t know what to say he says nothing all at. Rather, he offers a simple soft series of nods. It seems to be enough for Dana does much the same.

Silence again infects the air around the pair. When finally it becomes too much Sanjiv clears his throat and pops the window. A scrapping sound of glass against metal can be heard from the interior of the door. It’s forgotten a split second after when cool air comes rushing in through the gap with a whoosh of loud road noise to accompany it.

“You don’t mind do you?” Is the query he issues to his passenger remembering her presence and finding when he looks toward her that she is staring out her passenger window as the world rushes past them. It’s a relatively boring view but not much to look at out here.

The short delay which follows is dead ended when Dana wrenches herself from her thoughts to meet Sanjiv’s gaze. A shake of her head confirms she doesn’t take issue with him having opened the car window. The middle aged man gulps silently, licks at the corner of his lips but feels no less uncomfortable, he imagined he would. Sadly, he’d forgotten what it was like to be in anyone’s company for any reason other than business. Sure, he could still term this the same way and yet cannot escape the pervading feeling that it is not somehow.

“How about some background noise, yeah?” Is what he says to break the fresh uneasy quiet between them. A silence he hoped would be made less awkward, it hasn’t, by the presence of the road noise and cool air blowing in his face.

“…Sounds good Sanjiv.” Is the succinct reply the driver is met with when finally the answer comes.

To be honest Dana isn’t sure her choice of words is appropriate, but having over thought the moment and reached no other options she said those words anyway. For some reason she finds they sat poorly in her head. It doesn’t matter that she replayed them over and over in hopes of finding a best option so she might not suffer relentless criticism of some form or another. So when Sanjiv powers on the cars sound system and begins scrolling through the bandwidth searching for a broadcast the director is more than a little relieved to have not been met with criticism, plus have something for her mind to focus on, even if it is static.

Minutes of searching bear no fruit. Sanjiv expects the car is too old to contain the technology capable of holding any sort of modern broadcast and so they are stuck with garbled static which occasionally breaks into something semi-understandable. Each time it does it lasts for no more than a minute or two. Dana has assured its fine. He understands she doesn’t want the silence either and will take whatever she can get. He hopes all of it will be enough now. He has no more tricks up his sleeve if it isn’t.

Alas, the noise of static, rushing road and road noise soon prove to be nowhere near enough as quickly the car’s occupants feel uncomfortable with their company again. Sadly neither knows what to say or if they should say anything at all. Small talk isn’t really their fortes. At one time Dana was good at it but she lost the ability some time ago while serving as director. And Sanjiv, well he’s spent years skulking in the shadows, killing threats chosen by himself.

“Sorry about your people. I’m sure they were good men.” Sanjiv doesn’t know if what he’s saying is the right thing at the right time but has concluded anything is better than the mainly static and air whooshing that has become the background fuzz in the car as they hurtle down the highway.

Dana licks at her lips resisting the urge to bite them, nods and then offers her thanks only for quiet to return once more and neither of them having a clue as to what to say.

Silence this time lasts almost half an hour and is made worse when Sanjiv kills the static radio noise and rolls up his window. Again the scraping sound of glass on metal could be heard. It seemed louder this second time and Dana continues to put that down to being because the road noise was being slowly choked off. Yet, there is a reason for Sanjiv’s actions. Not that he peels his eyes away from the road ahead as he suggests, “You might want to get some rest. We’re still a good maybe half dozen hours from the city. And I imagine you’ll need all the energy you can get for your return to being the director.”

At any other time in any other situation Dana thinks she would have taken his suggestion as an order, one meant to offend, but as things are she takes it as an offer, a kind one. One she elects to take. Hence why she nods, offers her thanks, then shifts about in her well worn passenger seat until she’s about as comfortable as she thinks she is going to get.

Sanjiv meanwhile thinks relentlessly about that day, when Warren ‘died.’ The drivers’ previously felt explosive joy has turned to apprehension and worry. After all, it’s been a long time since he last saw his friend. Will they still get along? He certainly isn’t the same man. Will Warren be? He hasn’t an answer. Part of him swears yes because he’s been stuck in the simulation. Another part says no and for the exact same reason. With no conclusion, and having cycled uselessly several times more than it should have, his mind moves onto other questions. Each is in some way linked to the one before it and prior to moving on he finds very few of them, if any, is he capable of giving a definitive answer to. This continued lack of certainty does nothing to stop the mounting unease creeping up his back. Unease that results in his shoulders rolling and shifting as if he is trapped in a cold cave scared of what might be around the next corner, shivering.

Focus on driving. Focus on what that ambush might mean. Hell, focus on the colour of the sky. Just stop over thinking the Warren stuff. He’s alive. That is what matters. You, I, was right. Sanjiv nods, tightens his grip on the steering wheel, now held in one hand, and continues down the highway. A few more vehicles pass by now. In no way could it be called busy but the change is a welcome one. Being out on the road as the sole vehicle for miles can sometimes be… lonely. Not something you thought much about before… He is well aware of that, but things change.

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