She's packed and ready to go by ten; Eric's scheduled to drive her to the airport at twelve.
An hour to walk around the grounds and say goodbye to the kids. As usual, she can't be sure which of them was the first to pick up the object of her mission; what one of them finds out tends to spread. A few of them hug her -- Avi practically clings. Sarai gives her a long indecipherable look and says She's walking into the labyrinth,
in a tone that somehow combines unease and approval. Arbalest, who almost never speaks out loud, hands her a sketch; it's a study of Charlie herself, her face from several angles. Ethan won't look at her, but mutters zhū nín hăo yùn
as she's leaving the room.
Half an hour for an informal staff meeting in Main. Ted, Irene, Fred and Laura Towne, Kate Welker, Eric VanAllsburg, all the others -- even Mark Bell, fidgeting slightly but paying attention as well as his permanently five-year-old mind allows. You all know I'm leaving on assignment
, she tells them. I'm not getting any twitches, but precog's not my strongest talent. If any of you feel anything, any warning, now's the time to tell me
They're not a ka-tet, this group; there is no overwhelming sense of wholeness to them, no bond tighter than family. They're connected by nothing more than the mutual decision to go in company for a while. But they're a team, and a good one.
They wish her luck as the meeting breaks up, and Eric helps carry her suitcase down the stairs and out to the car, and it's time to get going.
At the airport, while waiting for her flight to board, she wanders through the newsstand-bookseller nearest her gate and scans the shelves idly for the new releases and bestsellers. There's a row of books, unfamiliar cover art under familiar names --
A man with a ponytail and a battered denim jacket nearly bumps into her as he rounds the corner of the bookshelf. "Oh, 'scuse me," he says without quite looking at her, and reaches past her to snag a book at just below her own eye level.
The art on the cover is a wooden chair engulfed in flames, and the title is Firestarter
Bemused, she watches the man head back to the counter, pay for his airplane reading and an overpriced bag of toffee peanuts, and amble off down the wide hallway.
Oddly, what she's finding herself remembering is something Armin Cochrane wrote
in that spate of emails from the Board: We're observers, not protagonists. Let's stay clear
Charlie's mouth curls in a smile of grim amusement. Speak for yourself, Armin.
Twenty minutes till her flight leaves. They'll be boarding anytime now.