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. 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.”

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. 5: Peter Newsome [null]

Monitoring: Peter Newsome [null]
Vienna, Virginia, USA

1:30 p.m. Eastern Standard Time
Tuesday, August 5th, 2014
17:30 Coordinated Universal Time
Tuesday, August 5th, 2014

Fast forward—

The room that Peter is looking into is stark and cold, a series of panels that run a veritable rainbow of light to dark gray and every color in between. A single set of sausage-shaped fluorescent light bulbs hangs over a metal table, bare on one side and covered with papers and notepads on the other. Dan Heron is sitting on the covered side. Across from him is Sinjoro Akvo, who Simon had called the man in green. His hands are folded over each other, handcuffs arranged awkwardly, but Peter can still see a bit of the bandages wrapped around Akvo’s left hand. It was a very unlucky strike that Viejo made, or at least it must be from Akvo’s perspective, seeing as it separated him from a solid inch or two of his hand, plus one of his fingers, but Akvo is hardly in any position to complain. Not that he seems inclined to, at any rate; he hasn’t so much as mentioned the damage done to him. 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. 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