Sunlight, ch. 06: Vihaan Sengupta

Monitoring: Vihaan Sengupta
Jalandhar, Punjab, India

3:35 p.m. India Standard Time
Tuesday, December 31st, 2013
10:05 Coordinated Universal Time
Tuesday, December 31st, 2013

Rewind—

As was typical for the Children, Vihaan goes from revelation of his powers to experimentation in short order. Seeing as he is living on India Standard Time, he has the good opportunity to be riding the school bus when it happened, and there is someone sitting beside him, who he can test his newfound powers on.

He doesn’t need to do it more than once to get the confirmation that he is looking for, at least for the present, but as the bus comes close to his stop, Vihaan pauses to give counsel. “Just tell your parents what’s worrying you,” he says before he slips away from his seat. Vihaan had boarded the bus as a fourteen-year-old boy, and now disembarks as a saint or minor god.

Or at least that’s what how it seems, but Vihaan can’t explain what exactly is going on. He isn’t a swami or fakir or any other sort of person who might deserve supernatural powers. There has been no training or process of enlightenment, nor any kind of blessing (so far as he can tell). That may be the oddest part of it all, and the most disturbing. There is no good religious framework through which he can interpret these events, and the good old materialist understanding of the universe is clearly lacking. By the time that he goes to bed, and has had a chance to practice on his siblings, Vihaan feels as though he has actually lost knowledge, even though he has really just learned that what he thought he knew is false.

It is disappointing, He would prefer that he were the one who was mad, and not the world, but he can’t go through life with the belief that nothing that he sees is real. Just to live, he will have to accept something, so he accepts this: His name is Vihaan Sengupta, and he can read the thoughts of other people.

And he ought to do something. It is not that being in possession of this power implies that he has also been given a responsibility; Vihaan is wary of assuming too much, now that he it looks like he can trust very little of even what science has discovered. He does, however, feel that he has an obligation regardless: that he ought to do something, because he can.

That is no excuse for acting hastily and inadvertently hurting someone, however. Again, he has received no specific injunction against doing so, but if Vihaan has not been given moral instruction from whatever being or force is responsible for his empowerment then he can still make those decisions on his own, and he chooses to value caution and prudence.

A week passes, and Vihaan is no closer to deciding on a course of action than he was before. Another week after that, however, and he decides to double down on his original position. His power exists, which means that there are ninety-nine others like him, in accordance with the other part of the revelation that he received. It is too much to hope that they will all be patient, and therefore the wisest thing to do might be to wait, see what they are doing, and help those who should be helped and hinder the rest. Without coordination, plans will collide. He will be doing the world no favors by adding another plan to the pile.

The plan, then, the better plan that will hopefully not collide with anybody else’s plans, is to wait until he knows what some of the other plans are and can evaluate whether and how he can involve himself in them, and in the meantime build on his capacity to be useful.


Kolkatta, West Bengal, India

2:40 p.m. India Standard Time
Saturday, May 24th, 2014
9:10 Coordinated Universal Time
Saturday, May 24th, 2014

Fast forward—

The air is thick with incense, but not as much as Vihaan is used to. When he tried to set the proper amount, or what he said was the proper amount, it got to be too much for the man that he is sitting in front of and they had to air out the room so that he would not be disoriented. After all, he might not be able to properly evaluate Vihaan’s (purported) abilities if he were occupied with a choking fit.

“I sense that there is this decision that you have made, you are still wondering about it,” he says. “Not often, yes, not often, but sometimes you are unsure as to whether you made the right decision.

The man, Divyansh, stares back at him, nodding slightly but clearly unimpressed. Vihaan can’t blame the man for thinking that he’s a fraud, even if he is currently reading the man’s thoughts about how unexpectedly dull and formulaic this test is turning out to be. He did, after all, specifically train himself in cold reading techniques, not just to get his subject’s mind walking down the right path (as it turns out, VIhaan can only read conscious thoughts) but also to supply an easy explanation to anyone who is trying to figure him out.

“Now, I’m getting something from your grandfather,” he says. “Wait, no, your grandmother,” as soon as Divyansh thinks about how both of his grandfathers are alive. “Yes, that’s it. Samaira? No, Prishna? Pihu? No, Pari. That’s it. Pari,” he says, though Divyansh had thought of his grandmother’s name as soon as Vihaan supplied the first wrong one. “She wants you to know that she’s very proud of you, even though you’re a skeptic and you don’t believe that she’s actually trying to communicate with you or even still alive. You’re honest, and there are a lot of frauds out there. She’s glad that you’re exposing them.”

From Divyansh there is now unadulterated anger, and a bit of uncertainty about whether it’s right to be so furious with a child. Vihaan is the youngest person to apply for these tests, after all. Divyansh would prefer to believe that he’s just a kid who’s been manipulated by his parents into being a faux-mystic money ticket for them.

“Enough,” Divyansh says, as someone hands him a sealed pack of cards. “Let’s proceed with the first test.” He opens the pack, plastic wrap crinkling in his hands, and feeds it a shuffling machine on a small table to his left. It spits out a card, which he retrieves without letting Vihaan see it. A quick glance, and then he sets it down on the table.

Vihaan will be confronted with a series of twelve cards. His success, based on the rules of the test that both he and Divyansh had agreed upon, requires that he correctly call six out of the twelve to pass it.

He puts his hand over Divyansh’s. “Are you thinking of your card?” he asks, but the question is superfluous. Vihaan already knows that he is. Ace of Hearts, he reads, and “Six of Hearts,” he says.

Without saying anything, Divyansh repeats the process.

Two of Spades. “Four of Clubs.” Two of Hearts. “Queen of Diamonds.”

They go through all twelve, and Vihaan fails every one except the eleventh, which he correctly calls as the Four of Spades. Vihaan complains about the lightened incense on the fourth failure, but Divyansh will have none of it (and rightly so, Vihaan acknowledges in his head).

“You agreed to the rules. If you couldn’t perform under them, then you could have said so in the beginning.”

Fair enough, Vihaan thinks. I just need an excuse for the believers.

They run through two more tests, similar to the first, and Vihaan performs just as badly on those. That’s fine.

The Prabir Ghosh Challenge offers two and a half million rupees to anyone who can demonstrate proof of supernatural powers. That’s a decent amount of money and the biggest single payout in his short career as a psychic.

It’s not that much, though. This time next year, he’ll be making that much every two months. Maybe more, if his career really picks up steam. There’s no end to how credulous some people are, or how much they’ll pay to communicate with the dead.

He can afford to lose this contest, and that’s the point of coming here. The believers will always believe; this will not harm his potential to make money and connections to use later, when the others have revealed themselves. In the meantime, though, he’s discredited himself. After all, what bonafide supernaturalist would voluntarily take a challenge like this and fail?

One that was trying to hide.

There are ninety-nine others like him, and he can expect that at least some of those will be looking for people like themselves. Let them reveal themselves. His plan, inasmuch as it is merely a plan to assist those who deserve it, requires that he be able to locate them. Being located, though, is…not in the cards, as it were.

Vihaan and Divyansh shake hands at the end, and he makes one last excuse for his poor behavior. Divyansh doesn’t even grace this one with a response, and Vihaan doesn’t have to read the man’s mind to know how dismissive he’s feels. What Vihaan especially enjoys is the small note of confusion in the man’s mind: Divyansh can’t figure out why Vihaan is smiling.


Jalandhar, Punjab, India

1:25 p.m. India Standard Time
Wednesday, October 22nd, 2014
7:55 Coordinated Universal Time
Wednesday, October 22nd, 2014

Fast forward—

Vihaan has an office now. It’s small, admittedly, and it’s just a converted room in his house, and ever since he switched to correspondence school he’s used it more for schoolwork than for business, but that doesn’t take away from the fact that it exists. He feels so official that it hurts. Maybe he should get a visiting card: Vihaan Sengupta, Certified Psychic.

The certification isn’t a lie, either, even if the paperwork was from societies for paranormal research. That’s fine, though. It’s all fine. Lots of people eat that stuff up, and for everyone else it’s just one more reason to dismiss him.

Now that’s what he should really have on his card: Vihaan Sengupta, Nothing to See Here.

The best part of this office is the chair. It reclines all the way back, so his back is completely parallel with the floor. He bought it with his own money, too, which is nice.

There’s a light knock on the door, and his mother comes in. Well, there goes the illusion of being all official and business-like. “Vihaan, there’s someone to see you.”

That’s odd. He doesn’t remember setting any appointments. Still, he can always do his schoolwork later so his schedule is effectively open and it wouldn’t be polite to leave them waiting.

No sooner does he express this position than a man steps past her, pausing briefly to thank her again before he takes a seat in front of Vihaan’s desk. He’s middled-age, probably somewhere around his late forties, with a hard, rough face, like he had spent his youth smashing it against granite until his face toughened up, and bits of it had chipped off in the process.

His smile is unexpectedly bright and inviting, as if he had stolen it off of somebody else, a person with softer features than his own.

“I know that I already sat down, but we should shake hands,” he says, reaching over the desk. Vihaan reciprocates without unthinking, and just as reflexively exercises his power.

Found you, the man thinks, and Vihaan recoils violently, slipping away from the man’s hand and out of his chair, onto the floor.

“W-What? You can’t—you c-couldn’t… “ Vihaan pauses, hand pressed against his chest, and tries to not hyperventilate. “Who are you? How?”

There are too many questions. He can’t do this. What’s going to happen to him?

“I’m a friend,” the man says, and Vihaan forces himself to calm down. Whether or not it’s a lie, Vihaan can’t do anything about it. Not for the first time, but definitely more strongly than ever before, Vihaan wishes that his power came with a truth-detecting component, but unfortunately that aspect only functioned insofar as somebody consciously thought about the fact that they were lying. Someone who was good at it could conceivably lie without thinking. In fact, Vihaan is pretty sure he had read an article about how some people are just able to convince themselves that anything is the truth, on command, like they’d walked out of Nineteen-Eighty-Four.

Or something. He had read it awhile ago.

The man waits for Vihaan to return to his seat, and then for Vihaan to speak. “Okay. So. First question: Who are you?”

“Colonel Rachit Sharma. I’m here as a representative of the government,” he says, and Vihaan feels like he’s in danger of falling out of his seat again.

He isn’t dead yet, though, and this is even more evidence that Vihaan’s options are, well, limited to say the least, so he might as well stay where he is, at least until he gets more information and he gets more options.

After another minute of silence, which Colonel Sharma again does not interrupt, Vihaan finds his next question. “How?” A pause. “I mean, why? I-I mean, I failed the tests. You should have passed me by. I’m not the only kid who’s done tests, not even the only one to get some of the endorsements that I have.”

Vihaan had wondered how long he should wait, and whether his age would be too much of a tip-off for him to successfully obscure it. The other ninety-nine were children too, after all. After much deliberation, he had decided that the risk was reasonable, compared to the opportunity cost that he would have to pay by waiting for a year or three before he started to exercise his power.

Maybe he made the wrong decision. Vihaan isn’t sure, though. Colonel Sharma’s reply makes everything very doubtful.

“Everyone that we’ve found like you has been born on December 31st,” he says. “Also, you’re prone to more academic success than average, although that isn’t a surefire sign because there can be confounding factors and reasons why even a bright child would receive poor grades. Really, it comes down to your birthdate. Someone who is doing extremely well in school is certainly noteworthy, but for other reasons, and there are lots of babies born on any day of the year, and plenty of fourteen-year-olds in this country, and you are correct that it is not unheard of for a teenager to evince supernatural powers, but all of these things combined? It makes us suspicious.”

Vihaan nods glumly, but does not say anything.

“Be more cheerful, Vihaan,” the colonel says. “What you did was very clever. You couldn’t have known that your birthday would betray you, and as far as that goes, you would have to have literally done nothing in order for us to overlook you. That would have been a waste of a good gift, just as much as if you didn’t apply your intelligence.”

“What now?” asks Vihaan.

“We talk for a little bit more, and then I give you my contact information and leave you to think about it.”

“You’re trying to recruit me?”

“We would have to stretch to find a combat utility for your powers, and thankfully enough, it isn’t hard to come up with other applications.” Colonel Sharma sounds like he’s genuinely grateful for that. “You would be put in a strictly non-combat role, then, assisting your government through other means. In addition, you would be put in contact with others like yourself, which I’m sure is an interesting prospect.”

“What can the others do?”

“A variety of things,” says the colonel. “A variety that is classified unless you agree to work with us.”

“How long? What will it be like?” asks Vihaan, and Sharma pulls out some sort of brochure and sets it on the desk. It’s about life in the armed forces.

“Sort of like that, with equivalent pay and a little less physical training, to be renegotiated when you reach your age of majority. I can’t tell you more unless you accept, and then we’ll talk with your parents and make sure that they accept. Since they seem to believe that you have supernatural abilities, what we tell them will be reasonable close to the truth.”

Vihaan picks up the brochure. “I don’t have to make a decision now?”

“No. But we’d appreciate getting one within a week. It would be nice to know where we stand with respect to each other.”

He nods, then looks down at the brochure again. It might be time to do some research on what military life is like. “I’ll think about it,” he says. “I’ll let you know.”

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Sunlight, ch. 5: Hannah Johnson

Monitoring: Hannah Johnson
Vienna, Virginia, USA

4:25 p.m. Eastern Standard Time
Tuesday, October 21st, 2014
20:25 Coordinated Universal Time
Tuesday, October 21st, 2014

Meanwhile—

Mary deliberates, Simon panics, and Hannah draws. Her world is not perfect, but it is coming together in the right ways and she feels very good about it: the world that she is living in, and the world that is coming to life on the canvas mounted on the wall.

She has visited Paul and Debbie, the only siblings of hers that shared her blood. She wondered what effect, if any, that might have, but they seemed no more and no less important to her than any of the siblings that she has picked up over her years in foster care. That she is attached at all to any of them is just some product of her lizard brain, but she’s grateful that it’s there.

The world on her wall is supported by its own bonds, old clans and more ancient oaths, emerging from chaos through a blue ballpoint pen tracing over penciled lines. It makes her wonder about Akvo’s people, what sort of rules they have to follow, and why. Hannah has not visited with him since that day at the restaurant: there’s nothing for her to gain from him, and besides that he seems dangerous. She perceives a similarity in him, more than the superficiality of how he is painting in blood at the same time that she is drawing in pen.

He is fixed on a goal. Hannah doesn’t know what it is, but if cooperating with the CIA and saving the whole world is only a means to the end of saving the world that matters to her, the siblings that she has made over the past seven years of being shuffled from home to home, then the same is true for Akvo. It is true of all of his partners in crime, if anything that he says can be trusted, though nobody is any closer to figuring out what their goals may be.

Hannah ought to be the one to solve that puzzle, really. The adults take their shifts here, and Guthrie has pulled more than a few all-nighters when she really should have returned home, but Hannah is the only who really lives here. It isn’t as if she has somewhere else to go, after all. But the memory of their single meeting makes her wonder how well they know her (and how they know her), to know what she would sacrifice for her siblings, and she doesn’t want to think about that any more than she has to. Instead, the honor of figuring out Akvo will probably go to—

A long shadow appears beside her as someone steps into the doorway.

“Knock, knock,” Austin says.

“The door’s open,” she replies.

“Well, yeah, I’m standing here.”

Hannah traces over another mountain before she turns to face him. “Done with TV Night already?”

Austin has taken to some sort of twice-weekly pop culture club with their resident murderer, consuming and discussing the media that Akvo requested. She tried to join in (with Austin only) but… Battlestar Galactica just wasn’t all that good. Or at least she doesn’t think it was. If one is going to write about impossible things, then it seems to Hannah like the proper place to do that is in fantasy, not something that purports to be science fiction. Dark lords and wizards are meant for enchanted forests, not starry galaxies, and Galactica seems closer to Star Wars than, well, whatever the actually scientific science fiction is.

It was a waste of a good fantasy plot, is what it was.

“We don’t watch the show,” Austin says. “We just talk about it.”

Of course, perhaps she ought to reevaluate what is and is not impossible, and inappropriate, for science fiction. A few months ago she would have scoffed at pyromancers and seers, but now she is in the company of one of each of those.

But on second thought: How about no? She still has zero evidence for faster-than-light travel or extraplanetary human colonies, and Galactica is still boring. There may be grounds for reevaluating her opinion of some superhero comics, though.

“Besides,” adds Austin, “I don’t think that he’s feeling well. Maybe a disagreement with something that he ate.”

If so, Akvo isn’t the only one who’s feeling poor. Simon is getting worn down, despite her best efforts (and possibly Dr. Denham’s, but if that’s true then his best isn’t good enough, and Hannah might have to lower her opinion of him even lower), and Austin is, well… Hannah isn’t sure what’s going on with him. He isn’t suffering, not like Simon, but there’s something about him that reminds Hannah of a kid who’s hiding something.

Is it bad? Could it hurt her siblings? He could be hiding something from Hannah and the others, or he could be trying to protect them. She isn’t sure what she looked like on the outside, when she had to do that. Maybe she looked the same.

She just has to trust Austin, and maybe keep an eye open for when he needs help.

“We’re going to be reading another book in a couple of weeks,” he says, and Hannah feels like he’s changed the subject, even though he’s really just brought it back on topic.

“More science fiction?” she asks, and he shakes his head.

A Night in the Lonesome October. Urban fantasy or horror or something. Late 1800s, early 1900s, somewhere around there.”

She considers the idea. It would be beneficial to strengthen her bond with the others, regardless of the current state of their relationship—and enjoyable, too. Hannah doesn’t read much urban fantasy, at least beyond the sort that only technically qualifies, and quickly goes off to another world, but it isn’t false science fiction, either. She can afford to give this one a go, and probably keep her patience with the story even if loses her interest.

But, to fill two needs (or three, counting personal entertainment) with one deed… “We should invite Simon to join us,” she says. “Without Akvo. I would prefer that we not add to the time that they spend together, and anyways I’d like to maintain my successful avoidance of him.”

“That’s a good idea. The first part, anyway. I think you might get something out of meeting Akvo,” Austin says.

“I did meet him. He talked with me, and then he talked with Simon, and then he and the other lady tried to kill each other and he won. I think that’s enough conversation for at least the rest of this year. Thanks for the invitation, though.”

He sighs, ever so slightly, evidently trying to hide his disappointment. Hannah wonders if Akvo has gotten to him somehow, but…no. Austin doesn’t seem the type, even now, and she doesn’t know what his angle is but she doesn’t feel like he’s angling for the two of them to meet for Akvo’s benefit.

Curiouser and curiouser, but what can Hannah do except stay alert? She’ll figure out what’s going on, sooner or later.

Sunlight, ch. 4: Simon Martin

Monitoring: Simon Martin
Vienna, Virginia, USA

4:15 p.m. Eastern Standard Time
Tuesday, October 21st, 2014
20:15 Coordinated Universal Time
Tuesday, October 21st, 2014

Meanwhile—

Simon returns to the world, instinctively jolting from an impact that he didn’t feel but which he knows will happen. Or could, anyway, but what is he supposed to do, write this woman a note and tell her to take the bus…forever? He doesn’t even know the date of the death that he just witnessed.”

“—”

And what does it matter, anyway? He isn’t allowed to communicate with these people in the first place, or do anything else that might leave more of a trail than there has to be, but even if he could, even if he were allowed to explain everything, prove it so that she will believe him, what would it change? It wasn’t her fault. He can’t prevent that car crash just by telling her to pay more attention.

“Simon.”

It isn’t a very big thing either, though. If she will just take a different route that day, whenever that day might be, or if she’s just five minutes behind her schedule, then she’ll live. With enough time for the butterflies of his words to flap and send her down a different trajectory, he could save her life without even knowing the exact advice to give. Just saying a few words could be enough, and their content wouldn’t even matter.

“Simon,” someone says.  

But that thought is more discomforting than the last. Being five minutes late in that instance would save her life, but in another instance it could kill her. All of it is so arbitrary, and it makes him wonder about the bigger cataclysms. How much of the future is in flux, and in what ways? Could he make things even worse, just as easily as make them better?

Simon,” and Heron grips his shoulder tightly. “What happened?”

Heron is about to say his name again when Simon finally responds. “S-Sorry. Car crash,” he says, and Heron breathes a sigh of relief.

“Was the vision extra long?”

Simon shakes his head. “Just…” He shrugs his shoulders, despite knowing that it’s going to earn him an extra trip to Dr. Denham’s office. “It’s interesting, how there are some visions where I never see what kills me. Sometimes, I’m bleeding out and then the world fades away. Or I’m a Giger tree, or something like that. There’s pain, and that lets me know that I’m not just about to die, but that I’m already dying. Other times, though, there’s just a transition, and I never see the threshold, let alone the other side.

“Bullets move too fast. I only feel it if the damage wasn’t severe enough to begin with. It’s the same thing with a car crash. I saw what was going to lead to the impact, I caught it just in the corner of my eye, but I died then and there. The crash happened, my head collided with God-knows-what and probably crunched, faster than the nerves in my brain—that is, her brain, could process what was happening.”

Simon takes a step away and leans his shoulder against the wall. “I’ve read about how humans—how we live on a time delay, always reacting to things that have, sort of, already happened. I mean, it’s not a huge delay, they didn’t happen that long ago, but still, by the order of, I don’t know, a couple of nanoseconds or something, we’re all living in the past.” He chuckles, just a little. “Kind of weird, in that light, how I’m actually able to live in the future, even if it’s only for a few seconds at a time. But I still don’t live in the present, even then.”

He feels Heron’s hand on his shoulder again. “You’re starting to ramble,” Heron says, and then, “I think that we’re done for today.”

“I’m… “ I’m fine, is what he’s about to say, but Simon catches the words before they pass his lips. He isn’t okay. “I’ll be okay,” he says instead. “Just give me five minutes.”

“No. We’re done,” Heron says, and Simon allows himself to be led out of the room, down the hall and the stairs, till finally they reach Heron’s car.

Simon slides into the front passenger seat. The vantage point isn’t exactly the one that he had when he died a few minutes ago (or a few weeks or years from now), but it’s still off-putting. “I can do more. I have to do more.”

Heron pulls away from the wheel, where he was putting in the key, and shifts in his seat so that he can face Simon. “Do you think that you can save the world on your own?” he asks. There’s a pause there, but before Simon can muster up any sort of response or even collect himself enough to give a dismal “no,” he continues on. “Where would you be without support? You can tell a little bit of the future. That’s great. Now try to do something about what you see without security clearance, or without other powers. Maybe you could do it if you were willing to kill someone in another timeline in order to get information in this one, but you’ve drawn your line in the sand—which I have respect for, mind you, even if I don’t necessarily agree with your decision—and you have effectively crippled your ability to brute force the problems that you encounter, which is the only way that you could possibly save the world on your own.”

“But I can still do what I can, and do more, and—”

“No. Absolutely not. Did you hear those words as you said them? Do what you can, and then do more? I know that was just some poor phrasing on your part and not a Freudian slip, but really, Simon, listen to yourself. There is a limit to what people can handle, and all of the therapy in the world is not going to keep you…” Heron’s face scrunches up in what might be anger or frustration or sadness. “…Is not going to keep you together. I will say that it this is about keeping you useful, if that’s what it takes. I will say that you will be no good to the world if you don’t take care of yourself and let us know when too much is being demanded of you, but really, what it honestly comes down to is that you are fourteen years old, and I have done some pretty terrible things, but I am not going to stand by and let you permanently traumatize yourself.”

Simon turns away and sets his head back, nestling the side of it in the space between the seat and the door. He tries to say something, say that the world is more important than him or that he’s more capable than Heron thinks, but the words get stuck in his throat.

The light shifts on the edge of Simon’s vision, like Heron has moved, and he hears the engine rev, and the world outside his window begins to slip past.

Sunlight, ch. 3: Mary Rucker [null]

Monitoring: Mary Rucker [null]
Madison, Wisconsin, USA

2:50 p.m. Central Standard Time
Tuesday, October 21st, 2014
19:50 Coordinated Universal Time
Tuesday, October 21st, 2014

Fast forward—

“Do you think that he’s awake in there?” says Mary?

To her left is the director of the CIA, calmly eating a fist-sized ice cream sandwich. In front of her, through the viewing window that separates them from the room in which he lies, is Michael William, who was born on the first of January, is fourteen years old, and fell into a coma less than two weeks after Simon and the other children received their powers.

“I doubt it,” answers the director. “Better safe than sorry, though.” He takes another bite of his ice cream sandwich. Mary isn’t entirely sure that food like that is allowed on this floor, but nobody’s given him any trouble over it. “Maybe he’ll wake up one day. Maybe he was never involved in any of this, and he’s just a weird kid.”

There’s no discernible cause behind his condition. That’s highly suspicious, given the circumstances, but there’s little that PALATINATE can do about it but make sure that he’s in he best of health in all other ways, and check up on him personally from time to time. Mary thought that she would be handling that, and indeed she is, but the director, too, seems to have more than a passing interest in the boy’s condition, and is as well-acquainted with the visiting hours and protocols as she.

“But if he’s not… I wonder what he could do. Cure cancer, or inflict it? Turn nuclear waste into gold? Read our minds?” she says, and the director stiffens. Evidently, he doesn’t like the idea of that any more than she does.

The director shrugs and pops the last bite of ice cream sandwich into his mouth. “Probably best to not worry too much about it. We have other things on our plate.” He says it with a tone that suggests that Mary is about to see them on her plate very soon, and nods his head in the direction of the elevator.

They descend five floors to the parking garage before the director speaks again. “The Indians found one of their children,” he says, and he drops the ice cream sandwich wrapper in a trashcan as he passes by. “We don’t know how, but apparently it happened very quickly, and they’re busy searching for more, just as we are. We don’t know how many they’ve found, or how many there are to be found.”

“Have they told anyone else?”

“We aren’t sure. Israel, probably. Possibly Russia, depending on how worried they are about the Chinese. The risk of a large Chinese outfit of empowered children would be unsettling to the both of them. They’ve almost certainly told the United Kingdom, with means that Canada will know.”

“It would have been helpful to know that when we started,” Mary says, a little more sharply than she intended, but not as sharp as she’s feeling. “What are we supposed to tell the Canadian government? ‘Sorry for neglecting to mention that we’ve been using one of your citizens for our intelligence operations. Oh, and double sorry for letting him think that we told you.’ That’s going to be a pretty awkward situation when they find out, isn’t it?”

“If they find out, you mean.”

“No, I mean ‘when,’” she hisses back. “We can’t keep the lid on this forever.”

“Keep Simon away from them. Let them think that they just haven’t found any of their children yet, or even that they don’t have any. We don’t know the rules that govern who gets how many children and neither do they, and enough absence of evidence, for a long enough period of time, may not be evidence of absence but does make very loud comments about how maybe they just drew the short straw on this one.”

“That would only work for as long as nobody knows about Simon. Do you expect us to keep him locked up forever?”

“Well, according to your reports, we’re all going to die in the next few years, so no, not forever.” Mary glares at him, and he amends his statement. “We don’t know what’s going to happen. Akvo, however untrustworthy he may be, is still our best source of information on what’s happening, and what he says does align with Simon’s visions. Our best plan is to accept what they’re telling us and assume that our goal is harm reduction, not avoidance. There’s a nuclear exchange on the horizon, less than two years from now, and so far, the only thing that we know is that it has to do with these kids.”

“Do we know what the Indians are doing with theirs?” asks Mary.

“Weapon—no, not weaponizing. Utilizing them, at least. Like I said, we aren’t even totally sure what powers they have at their disposal. It’s a military operation, though, rather than an operation by the Intelligence Bureau or the Research and Analysis Wing.”

“If they handed control over to the armed forces, then that would make a few suggestions about what they plan to do, Most of them involving China.” Mary shakes her head. “We have to talk with the Indians.”

“Excuse me?”

“There doesn’t have to be an apocalypse,” Mary explains. “Even if it’s very likely, even if that’s what Simon’s visions are showing to him and what Akvo thinks is going to happen, it isn’t certain. Right now, we know that there’s going to be a nuclear exchange, at least if we don’t do anything to stop it, and from what you’re telling me, our best candidate for the party that starts it is somewhere in Asia.

“India and Russia have reasons to align themselves against China, who has an ally in Pakistan. All four have nuclear weapons, and it’s more than likely that there are children with superpowers in each of those countries, even if India is the only one to know what’s going on—which is a big ‘if,”’ one that’s too big for me to feel comfortable. I don’t know exactly how many times the world only narrowly avoided a full-blown nuclear war, but it was a lot, and most of them were over accidents and glitches. Now we’re adding superpowers into the mix, superpowers that we don’t even know about, and what’s worse is that nobody else knows what or how many powers the other players have. At least during the Cold War we had a rough idea of what the Soviets could do, and we were still terrified and uncertain. The likelihood that somebody is going to panic is much too great.”

The problem is that there are too many tension points already. China doesn’t like that India could decide to reannex Pakistan, whose location gives the China access to the Arabian Sea. India doesn’t like that much of its water is sourced from Tibet, and could easily be dammed up if China decides to send it east to their drier provinces. Russia is nervous about the long and difficult to fortify border that it shares with China.

Any one of them could blow. Now there are superpowers, and nobody knows who has what, or how many, and the situation may be more liable to blow than it ever has been.

The director is silent. Hopefully he’s giving due consideration to Mary’s words, and thinking over the same things that she knows. They walk together in silence for a minute, and then he finally replies. “I can’t give you an answer right now.”

“Sir, I—”

He shakes his head. “We have more than a year before there’s a war. We can afford to take a day before we commit to a course of action. We should always be wary of doing things that we cannot undo, and if we share our intelligence then that is something that we can’t take back.” The director fishes out his keys, and the car’s locks disengage. “Remember, if the situation is this dicey, we could make any war worse just as easily as we could prevent it. Maybe more easily, even.”

Sunlight, ch. 2: Ananya Sharma

Monitoring: Ananya Sharma
Ghaziabad, Uttar Pradesh, India

3:20 p.m. India Standard Time
Sunday, October 19th, 2014
9:50 Coordinated Universal Time
Sunday, October 19th, 2014

Fast forward—

Ananya shuffles the card back into the deck and draws another index card. “Next question: What are the aims of the Indian Ocean Rim Association?”

With additional children in the program, a makeshift educational program had been established. Ananya and the others have been mostly allowed to manage themselves, so long as their test scores keep up. The decision could have been due to any number of things: a lack of interest in running classes (maybe, but that implied an inability to find teachers who could be given security clearance or even a halfway decent cover story, which was less likely), trust in their capabilities to educate themselves (possible, especially since they all seem rather bright and able to learn under the proper circumstances—a noteworthy fact in itself), or an attempt to give them some measure of independence and at the same time keep them occupied and out of trouble (also likely, though it is a small source of conflict for Ananya, as she isn’t sure whether she ought to take it as a patronizing manipulation and feel offended).

The curriculum is a little nonstandard. There is an emphasis on international relations. Ananya has a feeling that some of it is more advanced than what most fourteen-year-olds get up to.

“All of them?” asks Aadhya, and Ananya nods. “Okay, aa, economic development, disaster risk management, maritime safety, cultural development, scientific development…” She stops, and looks at Ananya. “Still more?” she asks, but Ananya doesn’t respond. Aadhya bites the edge of her lip. “Oh. Environmental conservation.”

They had been relocated again, this time to Hindon Air Force Station. Nobody is sure exactly what why, except that it has something to do with one or more of them, but they all have their theories. Being prepared for an immediate mission isn’t possible (or at least it shouldn’t be, if their superiors have any sense of timing and forewarning), and Ayaan would be better-suited to a factory than a hangar if they were trying to improve on the assembly line that been set up for him. Kyra and Aadhya’s powers, to remove herself from people’s memories and to slip objects in and out of a small extradimensional pocket, respectively, didn’t seem like they required any kind of location change to take advantage of.

Maybe Rudra? His ability to touch a humanoid object—dolls, mannequins, statutes, it didn’t matter, though there was apparently a point where it no longer looked human enough to count as a valid target—and animate it was interesting, but not incredibly useful, seeing as it turned lifeless again as soon as he was no longer in contact with it. After a few tests a couple of months ago, the military seemed to have lost interest in him and Ananya isn’t sure why they would need him here now. Ananya had thought up a couple of applications herself, but wearing a humanoid shell as armor wasn’t all that great next to Ayaan’s ability to make any outfit tougher than kevlar and lighter than a feather.

“Okay, and what’s the ultimate aim of the IORA?” she asks Aadhya.

“By promoting sustained and balanced economic development across the region, India itself is bolstered and the region as a whole becomes invested in the current order. Stability therefore increases, which is better for everyone, everywhere. Eventually,” Aadhya adds, a tone of uncertainty entering her voice. She’s probably thinking of the people who are hungry now, if past conversations are any hint. Ananya can’t say that she blames her, but…

For that matter, the relocation was possibly for Ananya herself, if Hindon was better-suited to being a power plant than any of the alternatives (an important consideration, Ananya notes to herself, is defensibility; she can’t generate electricity for anybody if a foreign power finds out and decides to bomb her). Recent tests showed that she had a capacity to provide power to at least a million people if their usage was kept to a reasonable level, and the government might have decided that it was finally time to capitalize on her potential in a way that warranted putting her under security.

Nobody has set her up in front of a power station yet, however, so if that’s the plan then they’re taking their time in putting on the finishing touches. It’s been two days already.

Ananya slides the card to the back of the deck. She’s about to read off the next one when a tapping sound grabs her attention. It’s her father, rapping his knuckles on the door.

“There’s a show ready,” he says. “They’ve been working on something.”

“What did they do?” asks Ananya, but her father only motions for them to follow, so she and Aadhya slip off the couch and exit the room. They collect Kyra, Ayaan, and Rudra and then take an elevator to another floor, where her father leads them to a vast. The ceiling looms over them, at least eight stories high, and the chamber stretches out far in either direction, the largest room that Ananya has ever seen in her life. She can’t imagine how many planes this is supposed to hold, but there are only a few of them here, plus one unidentifiable mass that’s hidden beneath a large brown canvas.

There are a few other people present, a general and some other officers, a few enlisted members, and a couple of people who aren’t in uniform and might be contractors of one sort or another or just politicians that she doesn’t recognize. For the first time, it really strikes her just how large an operation it is that they’re running. Hindan is the largest airbase in on the continent; India might be concealing the exact capabilities of its “empowered humans” (as Ananya overheard somebody calling them), but they’re evidently not being too paranoid about it all.

“Are you ready, Rudra?” asks her father, and he nods and heads to whatever is concealed under that canvas. Someone that she doesn’t recognize hands him goggles and a pair of gloves, and he disappears beneath the canvas.

“What is this?”

“Wait and see,” answers her father. His expression is…not grim, exactly, but severe. Not angry or disgusted or sad, but less than pleased. She only catches it in profile, because he doesn’t turn away from the canvas when he answers her and she doesn’t lean away from his side to see more of his face.

A mass shifts beneath the canvas. As it begins the rise, the cover slips away, first revealing a hand, then an arm, then the whole body of a huge sculpture, nearly tall enough to reach the ceiling. Its hands are wrapped in cloth that, by its garish purple coloration, must have been altered by Ayaan at some point. The thing’s face is monstrous, with bulging yellow eyes and huge tusks jutting out from a shallow mouth. A recessed viewport sits in its chest, and covering it is another shirt of Ayaan’s, transparent rather than colored but presumably as resilient as anything of his other alterations.

“It’s big,” Kyra whispers, and Ananya nods wordlessly. The more amazing thing to her is how smoothly it moves. She had seen Rudra animate smaller things, dummies and action figures and the like, but those had been small. It made intuitive sense that they move so, but some part of her keeps expecting for this giant to be a lumbering brute. This is nothing like that, however. There is some uncertainty in its movements, definitely, but that clumsiness seems due more to Rudra’s own unfamiliarity than any fault on its part. Rudra draws a hand close to the viewport, so that he may examine it, and as its fingers flex and clench they move like quicksilver, as though there were many hinges in them.

Most eerily of all, the thing itself doesn’t make noise. She expects it to creak, like something under pressure, not move in silence. Oh, sure, there are sounds as its feet land on the hangar floor, great booms that echo off the walls, but its movement does not make noise in itself, more like a living being than a machine.

“This is just another prototype, isn’t it?”

Her father nods. “He won’t be able to hear in there, and an alternative to a window, however shielded it might be, would be appreciated.” He frowns.

“How big can it get?” Ananya asks him, as Rudra’s stone body stalks across the hangar floor. Again, the ease with which its body moves is striking, but more startling is how it accelerates and then stops on a dime.

“We don’t know. Steel and concrete alone could advance us far enough on their own, but there are other unknowns. Most of them have to do with the fact that there’s a limit to how much we can do to a frame before Rudra becomes unable to animate it, and our lack of knowledge about how he’s altering it. Look at how it seems to flow as he directs it. He isn’t just propelling it. There are changes being worked upon it, and we aren’t sure how those might affect, for example, the tensile strength of the concrete. We don’t want to build a twenty-story suit only for it to trip, shatter, and kill him.”

A metal rod is in the stone figure’s hands, plucked from a pile of materials that had been left beside its original resting place. The rod bends in its hands, despite being as thick around as its wrists.

“He still isn’t very useful. This is still nothing compared to a nuclear weapon,” Ananya says, and she marvels internally at how the world has gone down such a path that she could be saying these things as a reassurance. Even as that, though, it fails. Her father shakes his head, and she tries again. “It isn’t very good even to help out with construction. Maybe as a symbol, but you don’t need to send him out to battle to do that.”

“They’re going to keep looking.” He frowns and glances away. “When somebody hands you a tool that you don’t recognize, you don’t set it down and forget about it. You find something that it’s useful for, and if that doesn’t work then…” He pauses. “Then you give up, if you have any sense. But sometimes you make a situation that it’s useful for. I didn’t join the Army and spend most of your life in far-off places so that my country could make a child soldier out of you.”

“I just make electricity,” she says, and for the first time it seems like another blessing that she would had to try so hard to devise a military utility for her abilities. She mentions nothing of those plans, of course, though they still lurk at the back of her head, waiting while she tries to be useful in other ways.

Her statement doesn’t seem to comfort him very much, and she can understand why. “He could be my son as easily as you are my daughter. Any of you could be my children.”

“I don’t want that to happen,” Ananya says, unsure whether she’s lying, or by how much. “But if India does need us…”

His hand clenches at his side, nearly—but not quite—forming a fist before it relaxes. “I won’t let it come to that.”

Sunlight, ch. 1: Austin Smith

“Life is a storm, my young friend. You will bask in the sunlight one moment, be shattered on the rocks the next. What makes you a man is what you do when that storm comes.” The Count of Monte Cristo, directed by Kevin Reynolds.

Monitoring: Austin Smith
Vienna, Virginia, USA

2:10 p.m. Eastern Standard Time
Saturday, October 18th, 2014
18:10 Coordinated Universal Time
Saturday, October 18th, 2014

Getting information from Akvo is a little bit like squeezing soup from a stone: if you think it works, then you’re probably imagining it. At least, that’s what Austin’s pessimistic side says to him, but doing something has to be better than doing nothing at all, and what else is he going to do, if he doesn’t try to talk with Akvo? It isn’t like he can even ask people for a better idea, or tell them to go do it if they’re better-suited. IT might be watching, that thing that was almost certainly lurking behind Akvo’s eyes, and maybe behind Austin’s and everyone else’s.

How do you organize a conspiracy when Big Brother is peering over your shoulder?

The answer, as far as Austin has been able to determine, is to make references and speak metaphorically and hope that Big Brother isn’t as well-read or as linguistically adept as you. If that isn’t working, and Austin supposes that he has no way of knowing for sure, then everyone is just doomed and he might as well come to terms with the idea–God, give me grace to accept with serenity the things that cannot be changed, et cetera, et cetera.

But before Austin is ready to speak the Serenity Prayer, he’s got to do his job, and that means Semiweekly Book Club with Mr. Akvo.

Agents Blank and Rucker aren’t questioning it, thank God, because Austin isn’t sure that he could lie well enough to make a good explanation if they wanted to challenge him. He’s grateful that they’re willing to trust him (and perhaps, he thinks, they’re grateful for the opportunity to make me earn that trust, here in a low-risk setting rather than in somewhere that the stakes are higher).

The worst-case scenario is that Akvo pulls some sort of stunt and Austin dies. Awful, sure, and Austin in particular isn’t happy about the possibility, but worse things could happen if he made a poor decision in the field.

Agent Heron glances through the one-way mirror, checks his phone to see that Agent Newsome (watching the camera feed on another floor) has confirmed that Akvo hasn’t been doing anything suspicious, and takes another, longer look before he opens the door and allows Austin to pass through.

Heron does not follow, but closes the door behind him. The illusion of privacy is always welcome.

The room smells like stale rust and decay, courtesy of the red-brown illustrations that adorn its walls. Akvo takes the sponge to them every few days, always within the week, but Austin feels as though the scent is seeping into the concrete and wouldn’t leave even if he stopped making new art. It’s as much a part of the room as anything else now, a mark that he’s left on it, even should he one day be allowed to leave.

Akvo does not immediately acknowledge Austin’s arrival, but continues his work, painting a portrait just below the one-way mirror. It is, Austin realizes with a start, a representation of Viejo. Her edges are wispy and indistinct, as though she is dissolving or is being viewed through a light mist, and her features look slightly different, perhaps a little smoother, than Austin remembers her from the pictures.

(He never had to see the body, fortunately. In fact, he never saw her in the flesh, which maybe makes her feel a little less real to him than she would otherwise.)

“This is a younger Señora Viejo,” says Akvo. “Fourteen years ago. Of course, she doesn’t look like a spring pup back then, either, but it’s…different,” he says, and there’s something in his tone that Austin can’t quite pin down.

Other images that are on the walls: a mountain range that Austin does not recognize; a series of concentric circles, too many for him to count at once; four people, their features too undefined for Austin to tell if he knows them or not; a very large square that covers nearly half of its wall.

Austin can’t think of anything to say in response, at least not very quickly, and before he can fix that, Akvo resumes speaking. “I didn’t hate her, you know.”

“But, you tried to kill each other,” Austin says, and Akvo shrugs.

“I spent every day of the past fourteen years and change with her. Even if I hated her, and I don’t know how people manage to hate and not understand each other under those circumstances, I think that I would still miss her. But that doesn’t mean that we didn’t have different priorities, or that those weren’t more important than our, hm, friendship,” he says, and Austin is reminded of the man’s analogy to the Cold War, weeks ago. Which of them was the United States and which was the USSR?

More to the point, how much does the answer matter? Since the time that they botched their recruitment of Olivia, Austin has made it a to-do to read up on his history of foreign intelligence services. He still feels mostly okay with cooperating with PALATINATE, at least for the time being and under the present circumstances, but he is also uncomfortably aware that saying, “Akvo is America” would not be cause for very much comfort. It would still require that he answer questions like, “In this analogy, who are the Third World Dictators that are being propped up, and what are the long-term consequences of this figurative policy of supporting totalitarian governments and giving them lessons on how to torture people?”

There is an uncomfortable silence (or at least Austin thinks so; Akvo appears to take it in stride, or not even notice it), which Austin finally breaks by asking if Akvo has finished the reading. He nods, but continues to work on his painting until Austin has gotten himself situated.

If the boundaries of the room are delineated with red-brown, then it is filled with green. Akvo didn’t request that the room be furnished, and there’s at least some evidence that this was less an oversight than it was a sign of disinterest, but it was furnished anyway: there are three chairs, a cot, a small bookshelf that stands at half Austin’s height, and a couple of those felt storage bins that Austin’s parents liked so much. Austin isn’t sure if the green color on all of them was an attempt to satisfy whatever visual aesthetic Akvo had or, as the green prison jumpsuits suggested, a joke, but Akvo hadn’t made anything of it in either case.

Austin takes a seat on a plastic folding chair and Akvo sits on the floor, not moving from where he was crouching beside the wall.

“So,” Austin says. “Job.”

It’s one of the books that Akvo had requested. Job: A Comedy of Justice, a story about an evangelical Christian who unexpectedly steps into one alternate history after another, losing everything he’d made in the previous universe, and ends up falling in love with a Norse-worshiping hostess named Margrethe and learning that God and Satan were responsible for the mess, and that they had done it more or less on lark.

“One of the things that I enjoy most about the book is that Heinlein doesn’t start it out in our world,” Akvo says. He presses his shoulders against the wall. “Alex begins in some other world, one with zeppelins and theocracy. That’s a refreshing change of pace in and of itself, but if the story is to be taken on its premises and Alex’s world is authentic in a way that those others, manufactured temporarily and on the spot, are not, then we might well infer that our universe is one of those false ones that the gods made up. I like a book that tells you that there’s such a thing as reality, and then says that you aren’t part of it.”

“I can’t believe that I didn’t think about this before, but how does that relate to Margrethe?” asks Austin. “Alex didn’t meet her until after he started traveling through worlds. But she existed, exactly as Alex knew her, in the afterlife.”

“She probably still existed. Alex still existed in the other worlds too, even if he was Alec Graham in some of them,” Akvo says, and Austin isn’t sure if he’s actually missing the point or trying to guide the conversation in a particular way.

“I don’t think that somebody is just their memories, but memories are still important. Even if she had the same soul…” Austin frowns. “What sort of person was she like before Alex started traveling? What does it say about the world that the Margrethe that we see later, in the afterlife, is the same that Alex was traveling with? Do Margrethe’s parents, from the real world, have a daughter that they don’t really know anymore? Or did every set of memories in every world get its own soul, and there are as many, I don’t know, Robert Heinleins in the afterlife as there are worlds that Alex and Margrethe experienced?” He pauses. “Are we supposed to take something from that, do you think, that one of the book’s major characters is, at least in some ways, the product of a universe that’s younger than the man who’s walking it?”

Akvo cocks his head. “It reminds me of one of those parody religions that get so much truck on the Internet. Last Thursdayism.” He frowns. “Or Last Tuesdayism. One of those. Their doctrine is that God created the world only last Thursday–or Tuesday, as the case may be–but created it in such a way that it had a perfectly falsified past, not just with fossils that are apparently millions of years old but also living things that have apparently been alive for more than the past couple of days, and their memories of lives that never actually happened.”

“Huh. That sounds like the Omphalos Hypothesis, which is a little less extreme version of that. And taken more seriously, but then again, that’s probably what Last Thursdayism is making fun of. Deacon Matthews mentioned it one time.”

“The Reverend Deacon Patrick Matthews,” says Akvo, and he closes his eyes for a second. “I had his cooking, once. He makes a fairly good pulled pork. Señora Viejo asked for the recipe.”

“You know him?”

Akvo shrugs. “Knew, or know of. One of those. It was long ago and I’m sure that we didn’t make a lasting impression on him, even if we were a little more unbehaved in those days.” Akvo pauses until he catches Austin’s eye. His stare lingers, as though Austin is an amoeba under the microscope, then he shakes his head lightly, just an inch or so, almost a twitch but careful and measured. “You’re still a good Catholic boy, aren’t you? Even after all of this.”

“Well, I don’t know about ‘good,’ but that would have been true even before this.” Austin shifts in his chair and looks away, while Akvo chuckles at his reply. “But yeah, I still have faith.”

“I don’t remember any of this being mentioned in the Book of Revelation.” Akvo raises an eyebrow. “Remind me, where does it talk about the girl who makes coins disappear?”

Austin shrugs. “I don’t know. I’m not a scholar. Maybe I’m wrong. I don’t think I am–I mean, I have doubts, doesn’t everyone have doubts? But I have faith, too. Everything’s weird and not like I expected it would be, and there’s definitely a lot that I’ve experienced, and probably a lot that we’re going to experience, that I really have to think about, but that would be true just if I were moving to the big city from rural Punxsutawney, Alabama. I don’t really have any answers, but saying, ‘There’s no God,’ doesn’t give me any answers either. I ought to keep with my original belief until I have something to replace it with, at the very least.”

“Ask you again when you find out what’s going on, then?”

“Maybe. If you’re able to tell me, then you might be able to ask me again right now.”

Akvo’s laughter is a little like a dog’s bark, brief and forceful, and it is followed by a silence that doesn’t break for at least a minute. “I don’t think so,” he says, his voice barely above a whisper, his eyes no longer facing Austin. “I enjoy your visits,” Akvo says, as if that’s an explanation for his reticence (and perhaps it is). He still isn’t looking at Austin.

“Are you okay?” asks Austin, and Akvo takes a long breath and nods.

“I…” He trails off, then tries again. “I’ve been better. You’ll figure it out,” he adds. There’s a distinct pause between the two, and Austin wonders whether they’re part of the same thought, or if he’s giving an assurance that Austin will learn the answer to his other question.

That possibility, more than the other things that Austin has seen or been told will come to pass, thrusts a needle of apprehension through Austin’s heart. Whether or not he is correct, Austin suspects that Akvo has met something that he at least thinks would qualify for the position of God. Coming against–not a mere disbeliever, but a witness to something else, is disquieting for more reasons than one.

Sharp as Sword Blades, ch. 13: Gabriela Silva

Monitoring: Gabriela Silva
Londrina, Paraná, Brazil

2:20 p.m. Brasilia Time
Thursday, October 13th, 2005
17:20 Coordinated Universal Time
Thursday, October 13th, 2005

Rewind—

In later years, Gabriela’s first memory will be of a midnight mass that her family is attending as part of their Christmas celebration. It is close to the end of the service, and after her parents and extended family members have exited the church, they sing Silent Night.

It is comforting, but not as important as what will be her second memory, from when she is five years old. It is when she meets the angels. Continue reading