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Excerpt: The Starkpine Sessions, Day 3

Day 3

Monday 10 June, 2019

1108

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Dr. Alec Baker, Psych Department, Global Security Task Force

Assigned therapist of GSTF Senior Agent Nikolai Smit, Arcto Unit Lead, callsign Arcto Townsend

.

Alec’s phone rings as he’s hopping out of the shower. “Yeah, this is Alec.”

“Baker,” says the familiar voice of Nick Smit. “I’m at your office, where are you?”

“At the gym, mate. Why are you at my office on a Monday morning? Did we schedule a lunch I’ve forgotten about?” 

Strangely enough, he doesn’t think that’s the case. He’s not in the habit of forgetting things. Smitty was on medical leave two weeks ago, but aside from that Alec hasn’t heard from the man in a couple of months. Depending on the source of the gossip, the leave was due to kidney stones, bronchitis, man-flu, a bad haircut, a sprained ankle, or sprained ahem other things.

“No, no lunch date,” Nick says. He swears. “Today’s Monday?”

Hello. Nick’s South African accent is only that thick when he’s particularly stressed or sleep-deprived. Alec makes sure the amused patience comes through loud and clear in his voice. “Yes, Nick. Today is Monday. June 10th, unless my calendar is lying to me.”

“Monday’s one of your days off.”

“It is.” He doesn’t mind the choppy weekend. It’s not much of an effort to leave the full Saturday-Sunday break for anyone who needs it, people with church or family commitments.

“Sorry,” Nick says. “I didn’t realise it was Monday today. I thought… actually, I had no idea what day it was. Week’s been a bit of a blur, to be honest.”

“What’s up?”

“Why are you at work?” Nick asks abruptly.

“Who says I am?”

“You’re at the gym.”

“There’s more than one gym in our fair megacity, you know.”

“The agency one’s free.”

“You’ve got me there. Yeah, I’m at the work gym.”

“On a Monday.”

“On a Monday. Why not? A man’s got to stay in shape, and I can’t do it sitting behind a desk, can I?”

“No, I suppose you can’t,” Nick says absently. Like he’s switched off and is thinking about something completely different from their current conversation. “Hey. Look, I know it’s your weekend, but are you free to talk?”

Alec crosses one knee over the other and fixes the far wall with a caricature of his Levelheaded TherapistTM expression. “Sure thing. Fire away, Smitty.”

Silence.

“Hello? Nick?”

“I’m at your office,” Nick says.

Ah. Alec drops the posturing. “Right. Yes. Make yourself at home, put the kettle on, I’ll be there in ten minutes.” He rings off, snarls a half-hearted curse at having his weekend interrupted, and then takes a deep breath and mentally sets aside everything that isn’t likely to be useful in the next couple of hours.

He makes it upstairs to his office in eight minutes flat.

Nick’s standing at his desk, steaming coffee mug in one hand, an open file in the other. Alec knows better than to be offended. Or to think the man’s actually stupid enough to go poking into classified information in a psychologist’s office.

“How much do you know?” Nick asks without looking up.

“For the sake of argument, let’s assume I know nothing.”

“Safe bet.” Nick flips the file closed and hands it over. Dark haired and brown skinned, he’s tidy as ever in jeans and a clean shirt; but it doesn’t take a genius to read the weariness in his face. “Read that. Summary’s on the second and third pages. Then we can talk.”

Alec takes the file over to the window and turns his back to the bright sunshine, leaning a shoulder against the frame while he reads. Background: Smit on sick leave, Nakagama and O’Brien on a routine intel retrieval op to Dinoga, NSW, which stretched to eight days and required backup from Thala Unit. Successful mission, medical check, immediate debrief led by Richard Lassiter, etc. Then… 

Ah. He flicks a glance over the top of the page to Nick, sitting silent and alert in a corner of the couch. Nick looks back, green eyes unblinking. Alec goes back to the file.

Agents O’Brien and Nakagama abducted off the street by a group known as Crimson Jackal. Strong ties to the Dinoga trafficking ring, criminal links, paramilitary organisation… formidable, by all accounts. Both agents left tracks as well as they could. They were drugged. Taken to an old WWII bunker in the back hills, codename: Starkpine. Subsequently tortured for intel.

And not just any intel. Intel on their unit lead, Arcto Townsend, Senior Agent Nikolai Samuel Smit himself.

Alec skims the details. Reads enough to get the gist of what they went through in the three days they were held. Matches that up with Nick’s notes about the concurrent actions of the extraction detail tracking them down. He slows when he hits the point of extraction. Makes sure to read it properly. That’s often the time things go wrong, and… yeah. Hell. Nakagama beat-up and unconscious, O’Brien beat-up and shocky… yeah, big surprise there.

Once they reach Medical he skims again. Dehydration, exhaustion, warning signs of early-stage hypothermia. Some physical scarring, no permanent damage. Regular medical checks. Regular psych sessions. It’s SOP for cases like this.

He pins Nick with a look. “Where are they now?”

“Apartment in the east tower,” Nick says. “We’ve got it for the month. Longer if we need it. Ellie was napping when I left.”

“And O’Brien?”

“Self-appointed guard duty.”

Naturally. “Vice versa when he’s asleep, I suppose?”

“Yeah. I make a point of stepping in when I’m around, but they’re being a bit slow to catch on. Only to be expected,” he adds, at the same time as Alec holds up the file and says,

“That’s not surprising after this.”

Nick nods. “It was only the two of them in that hellhole for three days. They’re close on a good day, but now? Now they can hardly be apart for long enough to make their individual therapy sessions.”

“That will settle down. I wouldn’t worry about it yet. It’s early enough in the recovery period. They’ve only been back, what, four days?”

“Nearly five. Extraction was early Thursday morning. Well before sunrise.”

“Right.” Alec shoots a long look at Nick. “How are you doing?”

Nick grimaces and doesn’t reply.

“Do you want me to put you down for sessions once a week? Twice? More often than that?” At least if they’re scheduled, he won’t have to worry about working overtime on his days off.

“Who says I want any sessions?” Nick asks.

“You wouldn’t be here if you didn’t. It’s nice that you wanted to fill me in on events, mate, but you don’t turn up at my office on a Monday without wanting something. I’m your therapist, your unit’s been through a harrowing week, ergo: you want to talk. And not just today. Their recovery will be ongoing. So will yours.”

“I don’t need to recover.”

“Don’t you?” Alec says. “Your team goes off on an eight-hour mission without you and doesn’t make contact for eight days. When you finally hear from them, they’re exhausted, both from the mission and from a five-hour debrief. Then they vanish again. This time there’s evidence of foul play. They’re only missing for three days, but it’s three days that probably felt more like three years, am I right? For all three of you.” He frowns. “A lot of threes in that. Want me to go one further and chuck you down for a session every three days?”

“No,” Nick says flatly. “I don’t.“

“Your call. But yeah, Smitty, you do need to recover. Anyone would after their team going AWOL twice in two weeks.”

“I got them back.”

Awfully possessive there, Nick. Alec files that away. “You did. And they’re safe. All three of you are safe.”

“I know we are.”

“So what’s the problem?”

A spark of acknowledgement lights Nick’s eyes. His shoulders slump minutely. “Too many to get into today. I told Ben I wouldn’t be away long. Yes, I want regular sessions again. Say twice a week?”

Good man. “We can do that. Any preference for day or time? I’m busy on Mondays.”

Nick winces. “Sorry.”

“Don’t worry about it. I know how time blurs when you’re dealing with stuff like that.”

“No preference for day or time. Although — nothing too early?” 

“Sure.”

“Thanks.”

“You’re on recovery time?” Alec asks. Not that he really needs to: it’s obvious enough in the mere fact that Nick’s here in his office at lunchtime on a Monday. 

He’s familiar with the way time changes when agents are in rehab. It tends to move slower in hours of frustration and faster in too-brief moments of success. Nights are a free-for-all between physical exhaustion and mental battles. The difference between normal time and recovery time isn’t enough to warrant its own time zone, and it’s never the same for any two people, but it’s enough to throw any established scheduling for a loop.

And to grant a grace period when people are late for appointments, or when they want a work session on his days off.

“We are,” says Nick. “Don’t have much of a routine yet, but it seems to be late mornings and restless nights. Ellie’s tired and grumpy, Ben’s tired and remarkably stoic, really. About the whole thing.”

“You don’t think he should be?”

Nick shrugs. “He’s taking his meds. Going to his psych sessions. Doing some gentle PT and giving himself time. It’s everything he should be doing, I can’t fault him for that. But there’s something not right. I feel like I’m tiptoeing around him. Waiting for something to give.”

Bottling things up is a common way of dealing — or rather not dealing — with trauma. It’s one of the reasons why they insist on mandatory medical and psych checks. And long recovery periods. The last thing they want is everything coming to a head when a team’s out in the field and it’s a case of life or death. “You’ve tried talking to him, I suppose?”

“I’ve made it clear I’m available if or when he wants to talk, yes.”

“So you haven’t tried talking to him?”

“No, I…” Nick sips his coffee. Waves a hand. “I have. But Ben — and Ellie, for that matter — you can’t push them. Not on stuff like this. They’ll dig their heels in, get their backs up. They’re insular enough as it is. If I try to push them to open up, they’re going to retreat even further into themselves and then we’ll be here all year.”

Uh huh. And it’s nothing at all to do with Nick’s own feelings of isolation, is it? Of thinking he wasn’t good enough to get O’Brien and Nakagama out sooner. Feelings of failure. Because he wasn’t in Starkpine with his team. He doesn’t know what they’ve been through there, he didn’t go through it with them. He’ll be feeling like he’s left out of the loop. Deliberately or not, it doesn’t matter. He’s the team lead, there’s always a natural separation from the rest of the unit.

And when the rest of the unit consists of two people as in-tune with each other as O’Brien and Nakagama…

That’s the trouble with three-person units. There’s always the potential for two to band together against one — in perception, if not in reality.

Thankfully, Alec knows how to fix this. And without having to tackle any of the particularly thorny issues on his day off. “Does he usually bottle things up?”

“No, Ellie’s the one who refuses to face things. Ben lets loose. He rants his head off, shouts or cries as needed, and then levels out.” Nick sits up. “You think — ?”

“I think it’s worth a shot,” Alec says. “If he does better to get it all out of his system in one go…” And it’ll help Nick know what really happened inside Starkpine. A full debrief might be the right way to go. “If I might make a suggestion?”

“Shoot.”

“O’Brien’s therapist is, who, Peter Churchill? Drop in and have a word with him. Get his take on it. Obviously there’ll be a lot he can’t say, but if he thinks it’s a good idea, that’s all for the better. Who’s taking the debrief?”

“Ritchie will be. When they’re ready.”

Ah. Alec foresees yet another old client dropping in in the next week or so. Starkpine might not be Darwin, 2009, but with Nick this close to events, Ritchie Lassiter won’t be far behind. He’s out of the worst of it these days. Out of the field entirely, and for good reason. Still. It pays to keep an eye on things.

“Okay, have a chat with Ritchie as well. See if he wants you to sit in on the debrief — ” he holds up a hand as Nick’s mouth opens, “ — or if he’s planning to run it with just O’Brien.”

“I’m Ben’s team lead,” Nick growls. “He can’t keep me out.”

“Actually, he can. Protocol, you know. He’s a senior analyst.”

“And I’m a senior field agent, and they’re my team!”

That’s the spirit. “So talk to him,” Alec says patiently. “He’ll know you took point on the extraction detail, medical clearance be damned. I’m sure he’ll understand where you’re coming from. Open communication, mate. The doctors ordered it for O’Brien and Nakagama. You might as well lead by example, eh?”

“Yeah, yeah,” Nick mutters. There’s a bit of an eye roll there, but Alec’s glad to see the point sink home anyway. He drains his mug and sets it aside. “I have to get back. Thanks, Alec. For the talk. And the coffee.”

“Anytime, Smitty.”

“Anytime except Monday, you mean?”

“Anytime,” Alec repeats, more seriously this time. “You need me, I’m there. Whatever it is.”

Nick stands. “Thank you. When do you want to see me next?”

“I’ll text you the details. Need to check my schedule. Sessions twice a week for as long as you need them, yeah? Good. Settled. Now get going. Your team’s waiting.”

Nick goes.

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