Not Too Small, ch. 11: Bert Blank [null]

Monitoring: Bert Blank [null]
Baton Rouge, Louisiana, USA

10:15 p.m. Central Standard Time
Wednesday, February 12th, 2014
4:15 Coordinated Universal Time
Thursday, February 13th, 2014

Fast forward—

Bert is on his second apple by the time that Mary steps outside to talk with him. They’re mostly rosy pink, sort of like peaches, but with some light green parts that are close to the coloring of yellow delicious apples. The grocery store called them a Cripps Pink, and Google further informed him that they originated in Australia. Louisiana’s good for them, apparently.

With a couple of twists and thrusts of his left hand, the apple gets a little closer to taking the shape that he intends for it. He pauses now and then to skewer and eat whatever he’s just removed.

“You’re making…a flower,” Mary observes, her eyes widening. “That’s actually very good.”

“It helps when you have to practice on three or four of them every night.”

“That many?”

“Quitting turned out to be about more than the cigarettes in the end. The time is a factor, too. It took me six minutes to smoke a cigarette, and I guess I got used to standing around for half an hour in the evening.”

Mary gives a few slight nods as she looks around. A few cars pass them by on the street, but most of the illumination is from the streetlight that they’re standing beneath. “You could eat inside, though. I mean, this beats Langley, but it’s still nippy.” She gives an exaggerated shiver.

Bert shrugs. “It’s about being outside, too. I never smoked inside the house. Stepping outside is part of the deal. It’s like crossing a threshold.”

Slice and twist. He carves out another piece of apple and eats it.

“A threshold fixation,” she says.

“Hm?”

“Like an oral fixation. Isn’t that a thing?”

“Right, right. Like that. It’s not just the nicotine. It’s all of the little things that got tied up into it. Something to occupy the hands and mouth and, I suppose, walking outside.” Slice, twist, carve. “I can’t eat apples inside anymore, you know? That’s the weirdest thing. I mean, I can, but they don’t taste as good.”

He holds the apple out out in front of his face, turning it over to examine his work.

“Want some?” he asks, but Mary shakes her head. He eats it from the bottom petals up, slicing them off one at a time.

In the end, it falls on Mary to dispense with the small talk and raise the subject that they’re both thinking about.

“What do you think of the children?”

Bert glances back at the motel, even though he knows that Hannah’s light turned off already. “I think they’re good. Most kids are. They’re smart. Again, most kids are, but they know they’re smart, which is a different thing. They haven’t been convinced that they’re dumb as bricks.” He pauses. “I wish they didn’t exist. Or at least, I wish they hadn’t been changed like they have.”

He had never shared Mary’s issues with LN/PALATINATE, which was totally understandable. It was a slap in the face to her (and to most of the group, for that matter). A demotion or exile to the loony bin of the CIA. Bert, on the other hand, has always found at least a little enthusiasm for it. He wanted there to be something more to the world—for the truth, as the X-Files’ tagline went, to be out there. It wasn’t going to be, of course, but it was nice to know that if it was, then he might be one of the first people to find out. Now that he’s seen the figurative UFO, he feels like somebody’s poisoned one of his apples.

“Whoever did this,” he says, “I hope that they have a mouth for me to punch them in, you know? Somebody did this, and whoever it is, they’d better have a really good reason for doing this to some kids. Even if our kids—I mean, these kids—never get hurt, some other one will. And Simon’s already seen some nasty things.”

“We have to make sure that he has a psychiatrist,” Mary says. “The others too, but definitely Simon.”

“They’ll get the best,” he agrees.

There’s a little bit of silence there, the sort where Mary has to say something but doesn’t quite want to. Bert has some familiarity with that kind of silence. As he waits, he slices away the apple’s last petal and puts it in his mouth. He drops the core, and fishes Apple #3 out of the plastic bag hanging from his right wrist.

“I talked with the director,” she finally says.

Twist, thrust, slice. “Yeah?” The rest of the team is still back at Langley, trying to find more kids and figure out what’s going on; if Mary’s started with the director, then either they haven’t found anything yet or there’s much bigger news.

“He doesn’t want us to talk to CSIS.”

Bert’s knife sticks in the apple for a second. “You told him what Simon can do, right?”

Mary nods. “It doesn’t make a difference.”

LN/PALATINATE is still a laughingstock, so far as most of the agency is concerned. A couple of other people know what’s going on, but there are more people in the program than there are out of it, who know what it’s doing now. It’s an innocuous fact, unremarkable in itself and even to be expected, but Mary’s report casts it in a worrying light.

“He isn’t expecting us to let him go,” Bert says in realization. “We’re just not going to tell the Canadians that we have one of their assets.”

It goes beyond the concept of “need-to-know,” or it plays with that concept in a way that suggests that nobody needs to know. By all rights, they should have opposite numbers in allied countries that they would need to at least be aware of, if not cooperating with. If the present liaison officers for each of the relevant agencies couldn’t be trusted with this information then something else could be worked out, but there should be some sort of exchange, especially when the information directly involved Canada as it does now.

“We’re going to have to be more careful,” she says. “I don’t like the idea, and maybe I’m just getting paranoid, but I’ve already gotten burned.” Mary pauses, maybe waiting to make sure that she’s caught Bert’s eye. “We’ll have to figure out a different approach with Simon’s family. Do you think that we should send anyone to pose as CSIS?”

Blank looks back at Hannah’s window again. “I don’t like the idea of lying to them. If we lose their trust, then we still have an advantage in being able to turn the resources of an entire country against them, but I don’t feel comfortable with that. I don’t think that it’s a good idea, either. We don’t know if there are other kids out there who make Austin’s power look as frivolous as Hannah’s, and in that situation it might be that trust is the only currency we really have left.”

“Right.”

Twist, twist, twist, and he removes most of the apple’s skin, like some sort of fruticultural taxidermist. “We can withhold information from them, though. We can’t do it with abandon, but we talked about that already today, and they accepted that there’s such a thing as ‘need-to-know.'”

That isn’t the big problem, though. The thing that Bert and Mary have to worry about—not to mention April, Peter, and Dan—is what the director intends to do with LN/PALATINATE. This refusal to let them contact CSIS might be a temporary case of being overly cautious, but it might point to a longer strategy. As it stands, the CIA might be able to disavow all knowledge of the project if that became necessary. Sure, Mary’s been using resources that she shouldn’t have access to under normal circumstances, but if the director is prepared to jettison them if things go wrong then they can expect him to have an explanation for that.

“He can’t jettison us after all of this goes public, though, can he?”

“Not if we make ourselves indispensable to the plans that we’re drawing up,” she answers.

Which gives them an incentive to make sure that it breaks soon, if they look to be in danger. Except that the director, if he’s really setting this up as a contingency and Bert and Mary aren’t just being paranoid, is going to notice that they’ve made themselves impossible to get rid of.

“Make sure that we are,” Bert says. “If he doesn’t ask for revisions then he’s got someone else who’s also working on a contingency plan, maybe even an entire counterpart to LN/PALATINATE, or he’s confident that he can adapt it…or he just isn’t planning to get rid of us and he’s simply being as paranoid as we are right now.”

She nods. They stand there for a few more minutes, neither of them saying anything more, and then she leaves. Bert stays put for a little longer, slicing fruit in the cold. He goes through a fourth apple, and then a fifth—as if he needed physical proof of the stress that this was causing him.

He hasn’t ever felt this insignificant before, he realizes. It’s one thing to know that you are a cog in the state machinery. Everybody feels small in the face of bureaucracy, and at least some people have gotten acclimated to that. It’s another thing to then know that there’s something out there that might as well be magic, and it decided to lend some of that power to some kids, and they, its chosen—guardians, soldiers, whatever—are probably almost as powerless as he is, when you get down to it. Hannah tried to sell them on Austin’s destructive potential, and she wasn’t wrong, exactly, but it still falls short of modern nukes.

Their patrons, though, are another thing entirely. There has to be a “them” (or at least an “it”), and they have to know what these kids can do is relatively small change. Austin’s useful, and Simon’s warning will probably turn out to be indispensable, but what the hell is Hannah supposed to do? Is the U.S. Mint trying to take over the world?

Whatever forces or beings handed out these powers, they have to know that at least one of those powers is just plain useless, which means that there’s something more to what’s going on than they’ve been able to figure out—as much as Simon might think otherwise, it doesn’t make sense for the plan to be saving the world, so Bert doesn’t even know what their intentions were. Bert can’t say that he likes that situation very much. He deals with enough overly-powerful bastards with unknown motives at work as it is.

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2 thoughts on “Not Too Small, ch. 11: Bert Blank [null]

  1. Hah. I knew it. No way the CIA stays on the level.

    Curious as to what exactly Bert Blank’s day to day job looked like before this.

    I’m also looking forward to when Hannah starts experimenting to find out just what counts as a “coin” when it comes to her power.

    Like

    • Depending on the day, Bert could find himself looking at grainy photos of what are definitely just planes seen from a weird angle, checking flight schedules to confirm that there would have been a plane in the area at that time, or talking to witnesses to discover, as if he didn’t know already, that they had been sent the photos by the town drunk. Also, shitposting on /r/UFOs, when he’s away from the office and doesn’t have to worry about getting caught.

      (It wasn’t all UFOs, but this is what the French agency GEPAN does, day in, day out.)

      Now that you mention it, a look at pre-2014 LN/PALATINATE might make for an interesting short story or two.

      Like

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