Sunlight, ch. 07: Hannah Johnson

Monitoring: Hannah Johnson
Vienna, Virginia, USA

12:10 p.m. Eastern Standard Time
Wednesday, October 22nd, 2014
16:10 Coordinated Universal Time
Wednesday, October 22nd 2014

Fast forward—

When Rucker comes back from her trip, wherever it had taken her, Hannah is speaking with Heron about pigments. There had been a problem with the lights in her room, which led to some experimentation with the effects of differently-colored lighting on the appearance of her artwork. That had required asking somebody to purchase some bulbs for her, though, and Heron was willing enough to run out to the hardware store (or at least she thinks that’s where he went, but she isn’t clear about whether there’s another place one could go for light bulbs), and then one conversation topic led to another, flitting around the general subject of art. Hannah is pretty sure that he’s only trying to build a rapport with her, but that’s alright; she’s trying to do the same with him.

There are dark circles under Rucker’s eyes and she doesn’t seem to notice Hannah and Heron as she passes by them until Heron speaks up. A light movement of her hand, barely lifting from her side, waves away Heron’s questions regarding her well-being, and Heron settles for following her into the elevator.

Ever mindful of potential problems, Hannah goes along with him.

“Get the others,” Rucker says, sounding out of breath. “We need to talk. The situation might be changing,” she says, and Hannah’s intestines seem to curl up around themselves and tighten. Her tactfulness might be more, hm, tactical than empathetic, but she still resists the urge to immediately inquire after her siblings. Whatever is or might be happening, Rucker isn’t acting as though a delay of a few minutes will cause irreparable harm.

Heron leaves, texting on his phone as he goes, but Hannah stays with Rucker as they head to the room that they’ve been using for meetings. Rucker slides into the nearest chair and puts the side of her head against her right hand for support. Her left hand, clutching a thermos that she had brought inside, is raised to her mouth, and Rucker perks up ever so briefly before the alertness fades from her eyes and she looks exhausted again.

As Hannah takes a seat beside her, the others begin to file in.

“Peter. What do you, you have something for us?” Rucker asks, and he nods, lifting a small cardboard box of papers. “Good. I need some good news. First the part that I don’t like.” Rucker pauses to take a long swallow of whatever’s in the thermos, then waits another moment. Her eyes brighten again, and she begins to speak. “India has a number of superpowered children—I don’t know how many—and seem prepared to use them for military purposes. They’re running the project under the auspices of their armed forces, anyway. We need to be prepared for a flashpoint in the region, between India and either Pakistan or China. That means, among other things, preparing to go public with the situation so that we can try to keep our hands on the narrative.”

“We were always planning on doing that,” says Guthrie. “If anything, we’re lucky that we haven’t had to do anything until now.”

Rucker gives a slow nod, almost as if her head is simply drifting in a downward direction. She closes her eyes. “Broadly speaking, our aims are, in order, to prevent the deaths of nine out of every ten people on the planet, as Akvo suggests is the most probable outcome; to prevent a nuclear war, which is probably but not definitely linked to the first bit; and to maintain the continued and independent existence of the United States and its allies. It isn’t going too far to assume that a conflict in Asia, between India, China, Pakistan, and maybe even Russia, could lead to the exchange that Simon has seen in his visions.

“We know that the range of these powers is going to increase. It’s very possible that nuclear weapons might not have to be used in order to wreak large-scale devastation, and it’s even a possibility that their use might be in response to superpowered activity. It isn’t exactly our usual modus operandi, but shedding as much light as we can on these things is probably the best course of action that we can take. More awareness means more minds that we can put to solving the problems that we are encountering and means a less fearful public compared to a scenario where they first learned about the existence of superpowers after an Indian or Chinese invasion. Before we go forward with anything, though, we need to make sure that you’re okay with our plans,” Rucker concludes, looking first at Hannah and then at Simon and Austin.

“What do you have so far?” asks Austin.

Rucker gestures to Blank, who answers for her. “First, we coordinate with our counterparts in other countries that we intelligence agreements with. If possible…we approach Russia, China, and anyone else that might be important here, and then we arrange for a press conference. We’ll be keeping your powers hidden, with the exception of Hannah, who can give people a demonstration and hopefully give people the impression that, while there are some dangerous powers, the majority of them are, no offense, innocuous.”

Hannah shrugs. “Will I get to collect my Randi Prize winnings then?”

“I don’t see why not,” answers Blank. “We’re also going to keep your identities hidden, of course. If there’s any upside to the fact that you are children, it’s that we can withhold a lot of information on the grounds that we’re protecting your privacy.”

“That’s the only upside?” asks Austin.

“I would rather that children not be burdened with the responsibilities that you have,” Blank says before he continues his overview. “We’ll explain that we’re looking for more children like you so that we can grant protection, et cetera, but stress that we aren’t forcing anyone to cooperate. Hopefully, our allies are willing to do the same in their respective jurisdictions.

“After the bombshell that is the initial revelation, we will also have to broach the possibility of nuclear war. We only want to discuss it as a possibility, mind, and not even slightly as a certainty or even, more truthfully, as something that Simon has seen in visions of the future. For one thing, it probably isn’t a good idea to make it public knowledge that we have any kind of precognitive, let alone one whose power would, I’m sorry to say, probably not have great optics.”

Simon shifts a little in his seat, but Blank either doesn’t notice or sees no need to address his discomfort. Maybe it’s the right decision. “We probably won’t make people suspicious if we approach it from the angle that this is a new situation and anything new is liable to make people jumpy. We don’t want to say anything that suggests to the public that a superpowered child is a threat, especially since John Q. Public will happily come up with that idea without any encouragement on our part, but we should be able to impress upon people the need for caution on general principle. If possible, less emphasis on international affairs and more emphasis on making sure that the children involved are being taken care of and have all the resources that they might require.”

“The Xavier School for Gifted Youngsters?” asks Simon.

“I doubt it. With only a hundred of you across the world, that would require some real international cooperation. And, to be honest, sometimes the only thing we’re able to cooperate on is, just barely, not killing ourselves and everyone around us. There’d be issues just about whose soil to put it on, so your school would have a pretty dismal class size. Anyway, our intent is to defuse fear as much as we can, in a neutral climate rather than in the aftermath of violence, and take advantage of the fact that we no longer have to hide as much. After this, our biggest secret will probably be you, Simon, although even in your case we should probably still be able to work more openly than we are at the moment, with greater interagency cooperation and aid from contractors.”

“What if somebody else doesn’t like what you’re doing?” asks Austin. “What if India or China, or even someone in the U.S. government, responds badly? Couldn’t that start a war on its own?”

Rucker nods, the first action she’s taken in the past few minutes besides nursing the contents of her thermos. “Talked with the director about it. He had those concerns too. Doing nothing is making a choice just as much as actively doing something is, so if we balk at every possible action then we’ll be as responsible for the consequences just as much as if we had been more proactive. All we can do is minimize the risk, calculate the odds and the costs again, and go forward with whatever looks like the best plan, and hope for the best. Depending on how long the details take, we should be ready to make the unveiling in…February or March, I’d say. The Asia thing certainly does put a kink into it, which we should make sure is settled before we move forward.”

“So, what about your box, Peter? What did you find?” asks Rucker. “I might need to reread your report after I’ve gotten some sleep, if there’s any for me to get, but we’d all appreciate some better news than this trouble around India.”

Newsome sighs and taps the sides of the box before he stands and reaches inside it. “Unfortunately, what I have is a bit of a mixed bag.” He bites his lip. “Good news: the background checks that we’ve been running for the past few months has turned up some fruit, which I have here,” he says, tapping the box again with his left hand. “Bad news: there’s a lot that we still don’t know, and some of this just opens up more questions than we had before. But I do think that the good news outweighs the bad.”

Photographs are dropped or tossed down, thrown haphazardly around the table so that there are at least a few in front of any given person. Hannah receives three photographs of Akvo and one of Viejo. Most of the photos that she can see appear to have come from photo ID. Their thematic coloration is on display in each one.  “Our friend Akvo might be better known as Wajid Gerges,” Newsome says. “Or Falah Maloof, or Diya Nazari, or even Steve Tuma. Viejo’s names are equally diverse: Ana Araujo, Matilde Pinto, and Ana Castro, to name only a few.”

“And they’re probably all fakes,” mutters Heron.

“Yeah. They’re tied to a bunch of bank accounts, mostly in the United States and Canada but a few in other countries, all in Central America.” Newsome takes a long breath. “It’s all pretty good stuff. You could run these through, and I don’t think that anybody would notice that something was weird unless you were looking for something, unless you had a reason to be suspicious already.”

“Does that mean that we can’t locate anyone else that they were working with?” asks Austin. “If they were doing the same thing that Akvo and Viejo were, I mean.”

“Not so fast,” says Newsome, more happily than before. That doesn’t require much of a difference, though. “I don’t know how feasible this is, and it’s almost definitely going to be a hassle, even for us, but…I couldn’t find any paperwork that predates December 31st, 2000.”

“Our birthdays,” says Simon, and Newsome gives a nod.

“That isn’t to say that there are no records that predate that,” Newsome hastily adds before anyone can interject further. “When I say paperwork, that’s exactly what I mean. Hard, physical copies. The electronic stuff has all sorts of dates—all of them very plausible, so far as I checked—but I did some additional digging and made more requests, and nobody could find physical evidence from before that time.”

“Well, that’s got to mean something,” says Guthrie.

“At the very least, if we’re willing to expend enough resources to cast a wide enough net, we could conceivably find a couple more of Akvo’s associates. It could also turn up nothing, though, or at least take too long to bear fruit. We would need people to go through an ungodly amount of records, not to mention break a couple of laws if we wanted to be really thorough.”

Blank taps one of the photos that was thrown before him. “Are they American citizens?”

“And Canadian, among others, usually with places of birth that correspond to their accents. We might be able to do something with the number of identities that they’ve forged for themselves, searching for photos of people with different names and even life histories, who share faces and were born in similar regions. It would still take time to set up, but that’s life, it seems.”

“You keep mentioning America and Canada and so on,” Hannah says. “Isn’t there anything outside of this continent?”

Newsome shakes his head. “Not a thing. I couldn’t tell you why, though maybe Akvo would be willing to say.”

“Or not say, in a very particular fashion,” responds Austin. “I think we’ve proven that sometimes, what he’s implying or referring to or just…gesturing in the vague direction of, can be useful.”

“Yeah.” Newsome draws another paper out of his box and unfolds it several times, revealing a map adorned with red circles and neat cursive writing. He sets it roughly in the middle of the table, a little too far for Hannah, at least, to make out exactly what the writing is supposed to say. He puts his finger down on one of the circles. “Twenty-six people dead. Four people dead. Sixteen people dead,” he says, moving his finger to different circles as he makes each pronouncement.

“The massacres typically took place in a small town with a tiny police force. Some of them had as few as three officers. Each case demonstrates a fair amount of planning and knowledge about the area. Where they happened in public locations, the murders were often carried out in earshot of at least one witness, for all the good that that did anyone at the time, and happened in quick succession, one after the other. The amount of time varied in a way that doesn’t seem linked to the number of victims but was always well below what you would judge police response time to be.”

Simon picks up one of the photographs and holds it closer to his face. “This was Akvo and Viejo?”

“I’m ninety-five percent certain that it was them. The smaller murders, the ones that took place in people’s homes, tend to display Akvo’s penchant for, um, artwork, and what makes them all notable as a whole is that you can see Akvo and Viejo withdrawing money and using credit cards in or around these locations, at these points in time. That would be enough to suggest that they’re following the killers, at least, but the new and bloody paint jobs point to Akvo and Viejo.” He pauses. “Unless we have another pair of serial killers with Akvo’s M.O., which I suppose cannot be discounted.”

“How many?” asks Blank.

“Two or three massacres every year, and around fifteen of the smaller cases, with one to four murders, in the same time frame. Mostly concentrated in the United States, Canada, and Mexico,” answers Newsome. “Adding all of them together, we’re looking at more than sixteen hundred murders over the past fourteen years.”

Guthrie’s eyes dart to the door and she opens her mouth, but Blank holds up a hand—after glancing at Rucker, who is less responsive. “He isn’t going anywhere, and we can’t act without thinking. Let’s not forget that the bastard bit off his own finger just to make a point. If he can be intimidated then we haven’t found the method by which that’s possible, and dispensing justice isn’t as important as squeezing him for whatever information he can provide. If we have to wait six months or even six years to do that, in order to save millions or billions of lives, then that’s just what we’ll have to do.”

Hannah wonders why nobody had ever figured this out before, but after a moment’s thought the reason is apparent: It’s easy to look at the information that PALATINATE has recovered and start connecting the dots, but there are probably only a few groups who could access it at all to start with. Beyond that, too, it might be easy to look at the information now, but putting it together in the first place is the thing that was the real roadblock to making the discovery. They needed Akvo and Viejo, or at least one of them, before they could begin to connect these identities.

“There’s one more thing,” Newsome says, and this time, finally, he looks unambiguously pleased. “It took a little bit, but if you’ll look here,” he says, and Hannah cranes her neck without success to read what he’s pointing at, “there were multiple murders over several years in this location, and here, and here.” Hannah isn’t sure what he’s getting at until his finger goes to Baton Rouge. “And here, and here,” he says, now pointing at Toronto.

“They were…stalking us,” Simon says.

“Or something like that. But if I’m interpreting these return visits correctly…”

“Then we’ve found the others!” exclaims Rucker, with a new alertness that startles Hannah as she leans forward with a quick jerk.

Hannah looks at the map more closely. She doesn’t bother to read the writing. The important thing is where Newsome’s tight scrawl covers the most space: Toronto and Baton Rouge, as he pointed out, and scattered across Virginia, yes, but there are four more locations beside those, two in Mexico, one in Cuba, and one in Utah.

We found them, she thinks. We found them.

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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. 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. 10: Austin Smith

Monitoring: Austin Smith
Vienna, Virginia, USA

2:40 p.m. Eastern Standard Time
Monday, August 11th, 2014
18:40 Coordinated Universal Time
Monday, August 11th, 2014

Fast forward—

Austin doesn’t know what to think anymore. Certainly, he can’t tell anyone what he’s figured out. He may not even be able to allude to it, if he isn’t able at the same time to convey that under no circumstances should the other person say anything about the realization that he had helped them to arrive at.

Continue reading

Sharp as Sword Blades, ch. 9: Simon Martin

Monitoring: Simon Martin
Vienna, Virginia, USA

3:30 p.m. Eastern Standard Time
Wednesday, August 6th, 2014
22:30 Coordinated Universal Time
Wednesday, August 6th, 2014

Fast forward—

Akvo clammed up shortly after dropping that last nugget of information. He claimed he was exhausted and wanted time to decide on “negotiations,” which on the one hand was kind of surprising from someone who had just claimed that he was in the world-saving business, at least currently, but on the other hand maybe not too unreasonable, depending on what he was planning to negotiate for: “I would like to be located somewhere other than a concrete room with a mat on the floor” would probably be topping the list, and Simon couldn’t blame him if that was so. Continue reading

Sharp as Sword Blades, ch. 7: Simon Martin

Monitoring: Simon Martin
Vienna, Virginia, USA

10:25 a.m. Eastern Standard Time
Wednesday, August 6th, 2014
17:25 Coordinated Universal Time
Wednesday, August 6th, 2014

Fast forward—

Simon is the last to take a seat at the oval table that they’re using for meetings, following close after Hannah. Mary starts talking as soon as he’s sitting. She doesn’t bother to explain exactly what happened in the interrogation, and Simon isn’t sure that he wants to ask. Either it’s going unsaid because it isn’t important, or because Simon and the others won’t like it. Simon and Austin, at any rate; he isn’t sure how much Hannah would care. Continue reading

Awful Shadow, ch. 9: Olivia Garcia

Monitoring: Olivia Garcia
Mesa, Arizona, USA

7:45 a.m. Mountain Standard Time
Monday, June 9th, 2014
14:45 Coordinated Universal Time
Monday, June 9th, 2014

Fast forward—

The world as only Olivia can see it is an ocean of yellow paint. There is no difference between any two specks of it but all the same she has somehow learned to differentiate, say, between the yellow that made the outline of a person, and the yellow on top of that. There was yellow inside each person, and a few months ago she became able to distinguish between the yellow that was their organs and another yellow that was in and around those things. In that way, it’s like an amorphous onion, with a multitude of layers. Continue reading