Monitoring: Austin Smith
Baton Rouge, Louisiana, United States
4:40 p.m. Central Standard Time
Wednesday, February 12th, 2014
22:40 Coordinated Universal Time
Wednesday, February 12th, 2013
Agent Rucker looks…patient; Blank, respectful. They make eye contact for just a couple of seconds, then return their collective gaze to Hannah. Not for the first time, Austin feels like there’s something that he’s missing–between the agents, between them and Hannah–but he doesn’t have enough information to be sure.
Blank leans forward and steeples his fingers together. “What are you looking for?” he asks.
“Our families have to be protected,” Hannah starts. “I don’t care how hard it is, how much red tape you have to cut or who you have to threaten to get it done, but our families are going to be safe.” As she talks, she leans forward as well, but where Blank’s posture suggested attentiveness, hers bespeaks aggression. “I want them monitored, round the clock, like they’re the President’s family, do you understand? I want them safe from everything—one bruise, and you’d better investigate the shit out of that and rain hell down on whoever hurt them, whoever it was, whatever the reason, alright? Make sure that they’re eating, that they’re—”
Agent Blank reaches across the table and puts a hand over hers. “We understand,” he says softly. He looks at Simon, then at Austin. “What else?”
“I don’t want to be a bomb,” Austin stays after a moment. “I mean, if we have to, if it’s necessary to save everyone, then I’ll do it, but I don’t want to kill people. These, whatever it is that’s transforming people, okay, but I don’t want to be a murderer and…” He pauses. “I don’t totally trust you, and humans are pretty bad at deciding when it’s okay for other people to die, especially when they aren’t the ones pulling the trigger.”
“If the situation is really bad, then I might decide to do it, but that’s my decision,” he says. “I’ll do whatever else you need to do, but if you try to order me to kill a human being, or if you trick me into doing it, then we’re done.”
Austin closes his eyes and waits to hear that he doesn’t have a choice, because he’s too important and something like, “We were talking about what you were getting in return, not what you weren’t going to do,” but to his surprise, that isn’t what Blank says.
“I understand,” is what Austin hears instead. “In return, I ask that you understand that people probably are going to die. We won’t give you that order, and we won’t even ask unless we think that it’s important. That isn’t the same as people not dying at all, and I’d like for you to give us the benefit of the doubt. We can’t tell you everything, which means that sometimes you won’t know why we did something and all you’ll see is the collateral damage.”
Austin doesn’t want to hurt anyone, and he’s a little queasy about the idea of working for people who do just that, and who are going to keep doing it, but if he can help them to save someone and doesn’t, then the people that the CIA killed will be dead just the same, and so will the person that he could have saved. It strikes him, too, that Blank is treating him as—maybe not an adult, because his tone feels just a little bit more conciliatory than what Austin would expect from someone who was talking to another adult, but Austin is being treated as a child who is rational and whose concerns are reasonable, at least. That’s important, and it makes Austin want to reciprocate with the same amount of respect.
“I can do that,” he says. “I also want to be able to stay here and keep fighting fires when it’s possible. Or, if I have to move, I’d like to help there, if I can.”
Blank smiles. “I don’t see why that would be an issue. Just make sure to stay safe.”
“What are our families going to be told?” asks Simon.
“I don’t know about yours,” says Blank. “That’s something that will have to be determined by Canada’s CSIS, I think.” He glances at Rucker, then continues on. “I think that the arrangement might be different for each of you. Like I said, Simon, I don’t think that we can even say what’s going to happen with you, and unless you have a pressing reason to avoid it then we really ought to cooperate with CSIS.”
“I want my family to be moved out of Toronto,” Simon says. “I want them to be safe, but I don’t know when or where things are going to go bad first. I don’t care what my government has to say about it.”
Blank shifts a little in Rucker’s direction. “PALATINATE will almost certainly take the lead in this situation,” she says. “I think that I can promise you that your family will be protected.”
“And mine?” asks Austin.
“It depends on what they’re willing to do. Everyone that we tell is a potential leak. We can’t avoid it with you three, or with anyone else that’s like you. After all, you already know half of what we’re trying to keep under wraps. Now, we can monitor your families without their awareness if we have to, but that’ll be difficult and greatly impede our ability to protect them. We can’t be open about this, though. Not yet.
“Like Agent Blank said, I don’t know how things are going to go with you, Simon, but it’ll probably be similar to what we would arrange with Austin’s family.”
“Which is?” asks Austin.
“It’s difficult, because we would prefer to not drop even a hint of this without a guarantee that it wouldn’t be discovered by a third party, but we can’t establish that guarantee without dropping a hint. What we’ll probably do, then, is approach your parents and explain that they’ve accidentally bumped into a national security leak, and that it would be best for their safety if they were temporarily relocated. If they agree, then we can explain further but otherwise we can’t do anything else for them. There are, luckily, no shortage of films to steal plots from if we want to elaborate a little, but luckily for us our credentials are legitimate and your family doesn’t appear to be paranoid.”
Austin raises an eyebrow at that. Part of him was, apparently, under the assumption that they had walked up to his door more or less as soon as they came into town. It was an obviously absurd assumption to make, now that he was aware of it, and he is left to wonder how long they’ve been watching him. What information they’ve dug up on him, too—it wouldn’t be surprising in the least to find out that they had access to all sorts of records on him.
“I think that they’ll be okay.”
Agent Rucker nods. “Then once they agree to be relocated, we can give them…a summary of what is happening.”
“Just a summary?”
“If you don’t want them to know what you can do,” Blank says, taking over, “then they don’t have to. That’s your tale to tell, just as it will be Hannah’s and Simon’s to tell if they want your family to know, and vice versa. Anything that you do for your country will also either be classified—and I hope that you will respect our judgment on those things—or left for you to describe to the extent that you want it described.”
“I can see that the parental consent form isn’t going to be very long,” Simon says.
“There is no consent form,” replies Blank. “Either you want to do this or you don’t. Your parents are not going to decide this for you. Really, they’d probably refuse to give permission to put you in harm’s way, if it were up to them. Most people aren’t good about weighing costs when it comes to their loved ones.”
“How long will we have to be, I don’t know, living like we’re in the Witness Protection Program or however it’s going to work?”
Blank shifts in his seat, tilting his shoulders in Rucker’s direction. “Until what’s happening becomes public knowledge, plus a little time—a month, say—to make sure that we know how the public is reacting. At that point, your families can remain under protection if they would like, but they will also be under fewer of the constraints that will be binding them between now and then,” Rucker says. Apparently in anticipation of his next question, she quickly continues. “Conspiracies rarely last for long. There are one hundred of you, with little to no coordination between you, and you, Austin, were found out by a fourteen-year-old whose primary assets, I assume, were cleverness, patience, and access to Google.”
“Besides that, I still haven’t been told how we found out that this was happening to begin with,” she says, looking away from the table as she does. “I would bet anything that we’re not the only people who know about you. Somehow, somewhen, word is going to get out, whether there’s a press conference in London, a disgruntled employee in Moscow, or someone like you just gets found out or breaks the news herself. After Snowden,” she says, speaking the name as if it were something vile, “it’s becoming increasingly apparent that our security is even worse than I would have guessed. So,” Rucker finishes, “we have plans for the news getting out in six, twelve, and eighteen months.”
“No plans for whether it gets kept secret for longer?” Austin asks.
She shakes her head. “We doubted that it would get to eighteen months. This is big news. And if Simon’s informant was telling the truth and nothing’s happened to disrupt the course of events since then, there’s currently a fifty-fifty chance of a nuclear bomb going off in this country in two years, and a one-hundred percent chance of it going off within three. At this point, it might be a good idea to make sure that the news has broken by the eighteen-month mark, maybe even the twelve-month mark.”
“What if that’s responsible for the attacks, though?” asks Austin.
“It can’t,” Simon says. “If we’re releasing this in response to my vision, then—I mean, it looks like there’s a succession of timelines, one after another. Based on what Hannah has told us, there must have been a timeline where I touched the woman in white and saw nothing, and then, years later, she was killed by a nuclear bomb that she had advance warning about. The timeline where I saw something came after that.”
“Exactly.” Rucker looks at her phone. “We should leave before your parents get home, Austin—and by ‘we,'” she says, as he stiffens in his seat, “I don’t mean you. Our conversation will go over better if it isn’t preceded by an explanation of why the CIA is sitting in their kitchen.” She stands and extends a hand. Austin shakes it. “We’ll come back tomorrow and talk then—unless you think that we should give you more time?”
“No. That’ll be fine.”
“Well then. Simon, do you have a place to stay?”
“He can stay here,” Austin interjects. “I can say that he’s a friend from school. My parents will give me a talk about not staying up too late, but it’ll be fine. We can say that we’re working on a project or something.”
Simon looks at Rucker out of the corners of his eyes. “I can do that. I mean, thanks.”
“Hannah?” asks Austin, as she pushes out her seat.
“Your parents would be cool with it?” she asks. He nods, and she looks at him for a few seconds, like there’s something on his face that doesn’t belong. “Nah, I’m fine.”
“Okay,” he says, and he shakes her hand and Blank’s. He watches from the window as they get into a beat-up Chevrolet—Blank driving, Hannah in the front passenger seat—and then returns to the kitchen.