Sunlight, ch. 10: Simon Martin

Monitoring: Simon Martin
Vienna, Virginia, USA

6:10 p.m. Eastern Standard Time
Thursday, October 23rd, 2014
22:10 Coordinated Universal Time
Thursday, October 23rd, 2014

Rewind–

“So, Simon,” his mother says, twirling spaghetti around her fork, “how’s, um, your project going?”

They’re in public, eating out at the Olive Garden, but his mother would probably be as reticent to directly address his work even if they were at home. Still, the conversation has fallen to a lull twice so far, and as much as she dislikes at least some aspects of what he’s involved in, she also wants (or needs) to know more.

Simon has not been exceedingly forthcoming. Which he is fine with, by the way, even with the memory of today’s appointment with Dr. Denham and the way that the man has seemed determined to make Simon feel guilty over hiding things from his mother. It’s not like this is something that she could help him with, though. Hannah’s okay, Hannah knows what it’s like (in more ways that one), and he never feels like he’s putting more on her shoulders than she can bear. He’s not one of her siblings. Hannah will tell him when she can’t handle anything more.

He doesn’t get the same feeling from his mother. As bad as she might feel from knowing that she isn’t getting the whole story, it’s still better than knowing that a couple of days ago her son found out what it feels like to get his eyes get pecked out by an impatient crow. How is he supposed to comfort his mother after he tells her that?

“Oh, don’t worry. That was nothing, really. I’ve gone through worse.”

Not a chance, and she knows that, and he knows that she knows, and so on, but she isn’t willing to push the matter. Silence falls for a few seconds, broken only by the occasional scrape of utensils against their plates or the conversations of other tables, and then Simon tries to speak again.

Repeat until the meal is done.

Simon knows that he’s running away, that it would be better if he just explains everything. He could say everything that Denham would say, if the doctor were here. How is he supposed to do it, though? How does he tell his mother that the world is probably ending?

He still remembers what Akvo said, how the most probable outcome is nine out of ten people dead. How is he supposed to tell her that?

After dinner is finished, Simon excuses himself as they wait for the check to come. He walks to the bathroom, washes his face and hands, and he sees the waiter pass by as he exits.

The decision is made quickly, with hardly any thought behind it. It’s an impulse, really, but Jack has been making a lot of jokes and he’s been attentive and he seems nice, and Simon has a thought, or a question, or a desire to know: Whether “nine in ten” means Jack.

He brushes Jack’s hand, taps into his power and reaches for the vision…

Ten seconds later he’s on the floor, eyes up, looking at Jack the Waiter. His lips move, his voice speaks, assuring Jack that he’s alright, that there’s no problem at all, he just got a little woozy.

Simon is responding halfway on automatic, though, speaking without thinking, his mind more focused on what he has seen, and what seems stuck in his mind’s eye even now. It has been burned there so fiercely that Simon suspects he might remember it with clarity even had he not been practicing with Dr. Denham.

First, he saw himself, a few years older, with facial hair, but undeniably Simon. He is shaking, his right fingers struggling to keep their grip on the gun in his right hand. His face is full of tears.

The sight lasts for only the briefest moment before a piece of paper is shoved in front of the waiter’s eyes. Behind it, Simon hears his future self apologize, stuttering and breaking over the words. Pressed against his head, the waiter’s head, he feels the cold weight of the gun. But most important of all is what the paper says:

Palatinate is compromised.
You remember them mentioning Michael Williams?
He can jump bodies.
He’s the CIA Director.

You need to get out ASAP.

His plan got screwed in this timeline, obviously, since I couldn’t get visions anymore, but he was using–and will continue to use–our visions to secure an “acceptable casualty rate.”

Acceptable ≠ lowest possible

I don’t know why. No Visions means losing a lot of info and apparently all the other prcogs precogs are dead.

China/India turns bad 6 Jan 2016

Recruit other kids. Start with Olivia, grab Joe Jones next

247 Wakefield St. / St. George Utah

Diana Martinez

Rio Missouri No. 500 Villa de Alvarez
Guadalupe, Nuevo León (Mexico)

Not sure how much more you can memorize.

Keep looking for others

Tell Palatinate about Daniel Hernandez before you leave. He’s in bad trouble.

Simon makes it back to the table where his mother is sitting. Jack mentions nothing, but takes the card that’s been set there, returns it a few minutes, and leaves for good, with two more jokes but nary a hint that even seen Simon walk by, let alone seen him collapse. Jack would make a good mob lawyer, knowing what to keep discreet without even being told.

The next morning, Simon decides that he has to talk with Akvo. There are lots of things about the man in green that disturb him. Basically everything about the man disturbs Simon, honestly. How it is that another version of himself decided that he was trustworthy is a question that Simon can’t answer.

But he has to get it answered, all the same. Akvo might be the only one who knows what to do.


Vienna, Virginia, USA

4:00 p.m. Eastern Standard Time
Friday, October 24th, 2014
20:00 Coordinated Universal Time
Friday, October 24th, 2014

Fast forward–

Simon has spoken with Akvo, trying to figure out whether he can trust the man. Results: inconclusive. Akvo is still a serial murdering son of a bitch, and his interest in convincing Simon of his good intentions seems only matched by his interest in fucking with Simon by supplying ambiguous or outright cryptic responses.

At the end of the day, Simon is going to have to trust that when he got a vision from another Simon, saying that Akvo was on his side, that the information was correct. He’ll have to trust himself. If he hadn’t already trusted himself, though, would he have been willing to just ask Akvo where the man’s loyalties lay?

He could second-guess himself all year long. It won’t change anything. He has to take a chance.

Simon walks. It isn’t true that there’s nothing else for him to do. That’s patently false. There are plenty of things for him to do. But they’re all awful nasty things that threaten to make bile rise up into his throat, no matter which way he turns.

What it comes down to this: He can do nothing, or he can try to get more information.

Doing nothing is not an option. A future version of himself, some “hypothetical” Simon, as Denham has encouraged him to say, thought that this was important enough to commit murder over, and unless it was all an act, that wasn’t an easy thing for Hypothetical Simon to do. If Simon is going to trust his hypothetical self, which he’s got to do if he thinks that he can trust his present, real self, then he has to act under the assumption that this was worth killing someone over.

Even if that person was just another hypothetical like the Simon who killed her, it’s important enough that he has to give it weight. It wasn’t imaginary to the Simon who did the deed.

What else, then?

Figure out what more Akvo has to say, of course. He already wanted to talk about this, if the vision of that bloody message about “your masters” was anything to go by. The surveillance in Akvo’s cell, though, means that simply approaching him is a poor idea if Simon wants to keep the details of their conversation secret.

That leaves just one other option: use a hypothetical timeline to speak with Akvo.

All that Simon has to do, in the here and now that’s real, is touch somebody and receive a message from a history that will never happen. In another timeline, assuming that they exist at least until the vision is sent back, Simon will touch that person, receive no vision at all, and know that he’s in a soon-to-be-hypothetical timeline. With this confirmed, he can go back, speak with Akvo, find one pretense or another to leave the premises, and…make sure that the message is delivered as planned. That history will (hopefully) unravel, however that is supposed to happen, and Simon himself, the real one, will get that message as soon as he touches his target.

And all he has to do is be willing to kill someone in a version of history that may or may not actually cease to exist after the vision is sent back, but which definitely won’t be the history that he experiences. Sort of. The Simon who will have to do that is going to be thinking the same thing, up until the point where he touches his target and doesn’t receive a vision.

It’s sort of like downloading your mind into a computer or something, put like that. Somebody can go into it feeling fine with everything, sure that it’s going to work out, and the thing of it is that there’s a version of that person for whom that’ll be true. They just have no way of knowing, before it happens, whether they’ll wake up in a silicon chassis or in the old failing meat body that they’ve always worn.

As much of a coin flip as this is going to turn out to be for him, it feels weird to not get Hannah involved in this. Simon knows how she would decide, though.

He goes to a McDonald’s, orders a medium fry, and nearly fails to hand over his money when he reaches across the counter. The fear of what he might have to do, of what some version of him will have to do…

But there’s nothing useful there, just another death like so many that Simon has seen before, and after Simon returns to the present he allows himself to be guided to a nearby table. It doesn’t make any sense, what he saw. Simon went here because he should be able to count on seeing the employee again, if not today then tomorrow, or the next week or something. The cashier wasn’t just a passerby, but Hypothetical Simon was nowhere to be seen.

No. Hypothetical Simon chickened out. It’s one thing, apparently, to murder under whatever circumstances the first time occurred under, but it’s another one altogether to work up the nerve to do it again, especially when this Hypothetical Simon didn’t have the benefit of, well, of whatever the first one had been forced to experience up to that point. It couldn’t have been easy, whatever path led to finding out that the CIA had been compromised.

But none of this is about what’s easy, Simon knows. It’s about what’s necessary, and if Simon can’t work up the resolve to do this just one more time, then… Maybe he’s better, if that’s the case. Maybe whatever that other Simon experienced had made him a worse person. But it could also get a lot of other people killed.

Somebody put a set of plastic utensils in his bag, even though there’s no point to them when all that he ordered was a fry. Looking at them, however, and more specifically looking at the knife, he wonders what sort of person that other Simon was, and what sort of person he’ll turn out to be if he does the same thing.

He wonders, and then he removes himself from his table to try again at the Burger King a few buildings down the street.

Small vanilla milkshake, two dollars and change, brush of the hand, and–

He doesn’t see himself in this vision. The message is already being held in view. Simon can hear the muffled sobbing, though, and see how the paper trembles in the other Simon’s hand.

They’re watching. Not supposed to interfere.

This is some sort of baptism by fire; some kids get superpowers, and if the species is mature enough then some of us survive and we get more powers. If not, well, we don’t.

Akvo doesn’t have a choice in the matter. Won’t say what they did, if they’re to blame for inviting or attracting attention, but they got co-opted into this role. Colors represent disagreements–some think they should flip the table and spite power-givers. Green means something different: we’re vulnerable right now, with our powers so limited, and Green means keeping us safe until we don’t have to worry about armies and bombs, even if the rules have to be broken. But basically, people with superpowers > people without them, to Akvo.

There’s something else you need to know.

We were made.

We’re all pretty good kids, it turns out. We’re going to disagree on things but nobody’s selfish or insane. We all look beyond ourselves. That’s how they wired (rewired?) us. Like Akvo, but younger (maybe with fewer psych problems too, hopefully).

The rest of humanity is going to have to learn to live with us, but we’re going to have to learn how to cooperate. Caring about things other than ourselves is supposed to make it easier than if we were heartless sociopaths.

Other Green agent in NA is Sinjorino Forton. Talk to her about getting out somehow, putting an ocean between you and Michael.

4140 Elliott Ave, Seattle WA
20 February 2015 give or take

Tell Akvo “Sunshine Boy.” That means “Michael Williams” apparently?

Tell him “Four.” Then wait that many days before you hightail it. Unless he closes his eyes for a long time, then wait six days total. He’s apparently put some thought into how to communicate with hypothetical selves and what he’d say in this situation.

Simon returns to the world, and the woman is standing over him. He mutters an apology and reaches for the vision again at the same time that he reaches for her hand, to get it one more time and catch anything that he might have missed.

She’s a lot more worried after he passes out for the second time, but that’s okay. Forgoing a third attempt, he manages to convince her to let him sit at a table and wait fifteen minutes to prove that he’s alright. Also, eat the hamburger that he ordered. She’s convinced that Simon needs to get some food in his body.

That’s fine. It’s all fine. Simon knows what’s going on, and where to go, and everything is fine.

Hopefully.

Wary of making too many visits, too quickly, Simon waits till the next morning. Then he returns to PALATINATE, descends to Akvo’s cell, and in the middle of another conversation he works in the words “Sunshine Boy.” He probably does it sloppily, all things considered, and PALATINATE will figure out that he was speaking in code at some point, but Simon isn’t practiced at this sort of thing and they only have to overlook the conversation for a little while.

Before Simon leaves, he says “Four,” and Akvo closes his eyes.

Advertisements

Sunlight, ch. 08: Simon Martin

Monitoring: Simon Martin
Vienna, Virginia, USA

3:40 p.m. Eastern Standard Time
Friday, October 24th, 2014
19:50 Coordinated Universal Time
Friday, October 24th, 2014

Soon there will be shouting and clamor and confusion. There will be accusations, demands, and threats. Simon will not be present, then, but he is here now, leaving Peter Newsome behind him as he enters Akvo’s cell.

The cell is full of the stink of copper and decayed organic matter. It grows thicker every week, as if there’s some small trace of Akvo’s bloody paintings that can’t be washed away, no matter how hard the man in green scrubs at the walls, and it builds up a little bit more every time that he makes another painting.

Or maybe it’s just Simon’s imagination, his nerves getting to him. There’s so much that he doesn’t understand about Akvo and Viejo, so much that doesn’t make sense. They could have been his Obi-Wan or just supervillains, but he’s been taught only a little and so far as anyone can tell, Akvo doesn’t have any superpowers. They made it possible for him to know about the end of the world in advance, long enough that there might be a chance to stop it, but they’ve killed countless scores of people, but Akvo has given genuinely useful information, but he’s clearly and happily fucked in the head…

Not for the first time, Simon wonders what it is that has made Akvo the way he is, and whether he is an outlier among his peers or typical of their number.

What did you do, to make it that I exist?

There’s little doubt in Simon’s mind that Akvo and the others are responsible, somehow. He just doesn’t know how, or why they did whatever it was that made all this happen, or how it was possible in the first place. If this could have happened at all, if it was ever possible for superpowers to exist, then why not earlier?

Without saying anything, Simon takes a seat on the ground near the door, and Akvo, brush in hand, sweeps his legs beneath him as he follows suit. Simon thinks that he spies interest in Akvo’s eyes, but not impatience.

“Give me one reason why I should trust you,” Simon begins.

“Because I helped you. Or at least, a version of me, in a timeline that never happened but which you witnessed a piece of, helped you.”

Simon wonders if Akvo knows why he is here, if Akvo knows what he has seen. Akvo must have some clue; the man in green sent him a message about it once, in a vision from not too long ago.

“Then why did you help us? Why are you…being so difficult to figure out?”

“I don’t know what you were told when you witnessed my death, but either you or your alternate self must have misunderstood. If by ‘us’ you are referring to PALATINATE, then your very premises are wrong. I helped you, Simon. I helped Hannah, and Austin, and any others that PALATINATE might have recruited. I helped the Children, and not their masters.” Akvo brushes a hand against the back of his head. “Why the questions, Simon?”

“I need to know if I can trust you.”

Akvo smirks, just slightly, just the hint of an upward turn at the edges of his mouth. It might just be a trick of the light, but Simon interprets it as a smile anyway, and wonders if Akvo noticed that Simon had said “I,” and not “we.”

Finally, he gives a reply. “I’ll be honest with you, because you deserve honesty and I think that you’re smart enough to keep things in perspective. I’ve killed people. It takes the edge off. You have no idea what it is like.” Akvo scratches just above his left eye. “Those people that I killed don’t mean anything to me. They’re only relevant insofar as they might turn out to be unexpectedly dangerous. But I care very much about you, Simon, you and the ninety-nine others like you, and you are the reason that I am doing all of this.”

Simon looks away. “Did you make us?”

“You asked me that before. The answer’s still the same: I don’t know. But probably not.”

Simon has heard that before, it’s true. He remembers that conversation. He just isn’t sure that he believes it–and yet he also can’t say whether he thinks that Akvo is lying.

There’s a kernel of an idea germinating in his mind, a question as to where Akvo could have come from, but there’s no definite answer yet. Possibilities, but mostly just more questions.

“What is the Green about?” Simon asks, and Akvo leans back, his shoulders slumping in relaxation.

“Curiosity,” he says. “Benevolence. An axe chopping a piece of cordwood in two with a single, intentful swing. I believe that there is anger, and I believe that there is generosity, and that is the Green. Fiŝo pli granda malgrandan englutas: Men are like fish; the great ones devour the small.”

“And are you one of the great ones?”

Akvo shakes his head. “I’m not even a fish. No, think of me as coral, or as an anemone.”

“What does that mean?”

“Ask me in another time,” he says, and Simon catches the extra word. He considers what Akvo has said. He thinks about the murders, and about the message that another Akvo sent to him through Dr. Denham’s future death, and wonders how he can possibly be expected to choose wisely here. He’s just a kid. He isn’t even fifteen years old yet. But he can’t talk to an adult, can he? And at the end of the day, Hannah and Austin, the only ones that he can possibly trust, are just as young as he is.

Wordlessly, Simon picks himself up from the ground and departs. Peter Newsome gives him a quizzical look, but says nothing. Simon isn’t sure what he would say if he had been asked anything.

Simon is going to need to have another conversation with Akvo. Not now, though. Not in this timeline, he thinks, and the idea of what he is going to have to do makes him sick to his stomach.

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.

Sunlight, ch. 5: Hannah Johnson

Monitoring: Hannah Johnson
Vienna, Virginia, USA

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

Meanwhile—

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Knock, knock,” Austin says.

“The door’s open,” she replies.

“Well, yeah, I’m standing here.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunlight, ch. 4: Simon Martin

Monitoring: Simon Martin
Vienna, Virginia, USA

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

Meanwhile—

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

“—”

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

“Simon.”

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

“Simon,” someone says.  

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

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

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

“Was the vision extra long?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunlight, ch. 3: Mary Rucker [null]

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

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

Fast forward—

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Have they told anyone else?”

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

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

“If they find out, you mean.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Excuse me?”

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

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

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

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

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

“Sir, I—”

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

Sunlight, ch. 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.