By shooting Ahmed, I compromised the secrecy of Athena, and I know that secrecy is the one thing we cannot survive without. To the outside world, Athena does not exist. We’re not some black-ops division of British Intelligence or a CIA experiment. What Peggy, Kit, and Li have done is start something that nobody sanctions. The upside is, they don’t report to anyone, and they don’t get tied up in red tape. The downside is obvious. We’d all end up in jail if anyone figured out what we’re up to. So I know I’ve really messed up.

It’s funny but, of all of them, it’s Peggy I feel worst about letting down. Maybe because she’s the one who would be the most understanding. She’s just one of those kind, really decent people, who never judge without hearing you out. Peggy is American. East Coast, Ivy League, smart as a whip. I doubt there were many other African American women knocking around Harvard doing law degrees thirty years ago, but it’s not something she brags about. Always super well-turned-out, she looks like she spends half her life going to the opera and ballet, and the other half at high-end charity luncheons. She was the US ambassador in London for a few years—and she was also CIA in her time. One way or another, she seems to have contacts in every country. She met Li when they were both UN Goodwill ambassadors.

Li grew up during the Cultural Revolution in China. She never mentions it, but she was taken from her family as a girl and forced to work for the government. Which is where I imagine the story gets interesting—the rumor is that Li became something big in Chinese Intelligence. More than that is a mystery. I know how to trawl online for obscure details as well as anybody, but you can’t find any information on Li anywhere, beyond the bland Fortune and Forbes magazine profiles.

As for Kit—well, what do music stars do when they stop selling records and start panicking about getting older? In my mother’s case, she came out as a campaigner for women’s rights. To be fair, Kit was an activist and feminist from her teens, and, boy, did she like to tell me all about it when I wouldn’t come with her to a rally or sign yet another petition. She used to lecture me about being part of a lost generation of self-absorbed kids who didn’t care the world was going to hell. Most of those talks were held late in the evening when she was halfway through a bottle of vodka, which sort of reduced the impact. Then she spent a year traveling around Eastern Europe, Africa, and India, taking publicity shots for the UN with women and girls who were living in poverty or overcoming the odds. It definitely gave both Kit and the UN some good coverage in the press.

Until what happened in Pakistan. Nobody saw that coming, and it changed all three of them. It was the start of Athena, which was something so unique, so off the charts, that I didn’t even hesitate to jump ship from the Program and be part of it. If you’d told me I would ever work for my mother, I’d have laughed in your face. But here I am.

Thomas meets me as the lift door opens. He knows to expect me because Amber put an app on his phone that pings, or barks, or something, every time one of us scans in through the alley door.

We turn left, toward the situation room and the founders’ offices. Those all sit behind another sealed door. To the right is a corridor leading to the operations room. Ops is a big space, filled with screens: those clear, floating screens that are kind of projected into a space. At various times, they hold headshots, heat maps, research, analysis patterns. A lot of boring online search stuff too. Caitlin, Hala, and I do a fair amount of background work ourselves on the missions that Athena is considering pursuing. Other than us, we have only a few analysts, and I’ve never met them. I guess they’re a small core of employees that Li feels she can trust—or maybe people she has something on. Who knows for sure? Li is really careful to silo people. If you’re in tech development, that’s all you work on. And when I need something from the tech team, there’s only one person I deal with—Amber. So I suppose that none of us really know the true extent of Athena.

“You’re late,” says Thomas. “Did you oversleep?”

He walks alongside me. In fact, just ahead of me, giving me the feeling that he’s escorting me on purpose.

“I never oversleep,” I tell him.

“You just chose to be late today of all days?”

When I’m in trouble, he means.

The Athena Protocol