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.

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

Sharp as Sword Blades, ch. 4: April Guthrie [null]

Monitoring: April Guthrie [null]
Cincinnati, Ohio, USA

1:25 p.m. Eastern Standard Time
Monday, August 4th, 2014
17:25 Coordinated Universal Time
Monday, August 4th, 2014

Rewind—

Face turned to the lionfish on her table, April watches out of the corner of her eye as Hannah converses with Simon’s mystery people. Even when they reveal their knowledge that they are being watched and Señora Viejo, as she is apparently named, blatantly looks around the restaurant, April keeps her face impassive. They know about two PALATINATE agents and one of those is almost certainly Mary, so there’s a fifty-fifty chance that her cover is intact. Continue reading

Sharp as Sword Blades, ch. 2: Hannah Johnson

Monitoring: Hannah Johnson
Cincinnati, Ohio, USA

1:15 p.m Eastern Standard Time
Monday, August 4th, 2014
17:15 Coordinated Universal Time
Monday, August 4th, 2014

“Milk, fruit, cocoa, and kudzu. That’s the part that makes it fit for this restaurant,” the man in green tells Hannah. “Oh, and peanut butter, I think, but they’ve taken our menus away. You aren’t allergic to peanut butter are you?”

He’s smiling. So is the woman in white, but she wears it differently: more softly, not in a gentle way, but as if she’s a bit of clay that hasn’t been fired and finished yet. His grin is sharp, even toothy, but it’s measured, Hannah feels. Continue reading

Sharp as Sword Blades, ch. 01: April Guthrie [null]

“Ask very pointed questions. Sharp as sword blades…if you catch my meaning.”
Afterlife, by Mike Monroe.

Monitoring: April Guthrie [null]
Cincinnati, Ohio, USA

12:45 p.m. Eastern Standard Time
Monday, August 4th, 2014
16:45 Coordinated Universal Time
Monday, August 4th, 2014

Fast forward—

“Table for one,” says April. “Over on the right, if you don’t mind.”

“The right?” asks the greeter.

“I think I’d like the view better from there. I hope that’s alright.” Continue reading