Around a table in a stark, windowless, and otherwise nondescript room under Manhattan, nine figures were arranged that looked like people. They were quiet, shaken, and refused to make eye-contact with one another. Some looked angry, some hurt, some scared, and some had the blank stares of people struggling not to remember. Each one of them was unique. They were different ages, ethnicities, and had walked very different paths to reach the room. All they shared was the last twenty-four hours, the tragedy, and the silence.
Monica Jansen watched the nine figures on the monitor. Her eyes flicked from one to another, searching for any change in their static expressions. For a clue of how they were processing what had happened to them, or even that they were processing it at all.
The figures in the video didn’t move, beyond several small, repetitive motions and twitches. Monica watched until she felt like she could see the rise and fall of their breathing through the poor resolution of the monitor that rested on the table at which she herself sat.
Monica felt that they probably knew that she was watching them, but that they didn’t mind. She had a philosophy that the ability to read people was a fiction invented to justify prejudices. As such, she tried not to let herself delve too deeply into amateur psychoanalysis. But she found herself imagining that if she was in their place, she would be comforted to know that someone was watching her. It would be a sign that the world hadn’t gone totally mad.
There was a brisk, cheery little knock at the door to the room Monica was in, which made her jump. Before waiting for a response, the door opened, and Agent Sandy stepped into the room.
‘Hel-lo!’ said Sandy. He stretched out and practically sung the two syllables so they sounded like a door chime, ‘Now, I’m so, so sorry about this, but they said that they couldn’t do you a cappuccino – I know! But I got you an americano with milk, I hope it’ll be okay.’
As Sandy took the seat next to her, he handed Monica the small polystyrene cup and she nodded her thanks. Sandy’s positive attitude at such a time had put her on edge, and the way that he had burst into the room all but unannounced had made it worse. It could well have been a ploy to put her at a disadvantage, but she recovered.
‘Thanks Sandy,’ Monica said with a smile.
‘When you taste it, you won’t be thanking me – worst coffee in the precinct, this station. Though, given everything that’s been happening, you can hardly blame them for being a little disorganised,’ he smiled broadly, almost genuinely, before nodding to the monitor, ‘So, how are our newcomers handling things?’
Monica turned back to the monitor. None of the nine had changed positions. ‘If it wasn’t for the clock ticking in the corner, I would have thought you were showing me a photograph.’
Sandy chuckled slightly harder than the joke deserved. ‘They’re a quiet bunch, but I like them like that. After seeing them in action, I much prefer them as quiet as possible, am I right?’
Monica didn’t like the joke. ‘How’s cleanup going?’
‘Usual story,’ said Sandy with a shrug, ‘We have elementalists streetside reconstructing, and our O.I. employees are curating communications,’ he took a sip from his coffee and grimaced, ‘Psych’s having some problems though.’
Monica raised an eyebrow, ‘Tragedy causing things to stick in people’s heads?’
‘Quite the reverse – trauma tends to disrupt memories, or so I’m told. No, the issue is finding a cover memory that could explain those bodybags. At the moment, they’re debating between a gang related incident, or a major car accident,’ Sandy seemed to consider what he had just said for a split moment, before humourlessly smiling, ‘They’re nasty pieces of work, those nine.’
A gear shifted in Monica’s mind and her body straightened. ‘Sandy, you know as well as I do that this is no where near clear-cut. These nine people are the victims of something far larger.’ Her voice made it apparent that she had moved from being in a conversation with a friend, to defending her clients against accusations.
‘Right now, in this moment, I expressly don’t know anything. The Agency isn’t here to make assumptions or accusations until we are confident we are in possession of all the facts,’ Sandy wore a practiced neutral expression while he said this, and raised one hand in a calming, conciliatory way that made Monica’s teeth clench. ‘However, regardless of whether they’re responsible or not, they managed to do a heck of a lot of damage in a short amount of time.’
‘Whatever gave them these abilities did the damage,’ she said, ‘They were just puppets.’
‘We are exploring multiple possibilities regarding the attack,’ Sandy said in a sing-song voice that sounded like a child repeating a poem in front of his class, ‘We are currently unprepared to attribute responsibility to any specific party or entity.’
Monica glared at him, and he returned an apologetic look that said I know, I know…
‘Are there any questions you have concerning the report?’ he asked.
‘Yes,’ she said, flicking open the large folder that had been handed to her. She turned first to the back, opening transcriptions of a number of brief interviews with the nine people in the room. The interviews were short and disjointed. Often the nine had responded with one word answers when they had responded at all. ‘First and foremost, I want to know precisely how you extracted the information.’
Sandy smiled his infinitely measured, relaxed smile that had only the barest hint of danger beneath it, ‘Nothing unsavoury, if that’s what you mean. The information in the report was not extracted via anything more extraordinary than talking.’ He turned back towards the monitor, ‘Admittedly, quite a lot of talking – they seem to be far from being the most talkative of people, even when they’re not quite so shell-shocked.’ Sandy glanced back at Monica, ‘I think I can guess your next question.’
‘Did you bring Psych in to question them?’
Sandy sighed in a way that said that his guess had been right, ‘No we did not bring Psych in,’ he put the cup of coffee up to his lips, but before taking a sip he paused, ‘Of course, it would be considerably easier to corroborate if you were willing to let Psych -’
‘No. You are not going to be using psychics,’ Monica snapped, ‘They’re innocent people in a delicate mental state, we don’t need to invade their privacy any further.’
Sandy’s smile developed an exasperated edge, ‘They are your clients, Monica, and if you don’t want Psych, then we won’t do it,’ he finally took the long-awaited sip of his coffee and grimaced again, ‘It would make things considerably easier though.’
Monica shuffled in her chair, ‘I have a few more questions.’
Monica hesitated. She flicked through the folder to the few photographs that had been included in the report. Monica was not new to this world, but what she saw in the photos was still disquieting. They were photos of an aftermath. Wrecked cars on their backs. Holes torn into the sides of buildings. Stone and steel twisted into unusual shapes. An office wall peppered with bullet holes. Still smoking ashes.
Conspicuously, there were no pictures of bodies.
‘The report doesn’t go into specifics on the attack,’ she said at last, ‘I think it would be best if I knew how bad it really was.’
‘Given the intricacies of the case,’ said Sandy, carefully, ‘Vis-a-vis, the possibility that these individuals were without agency in the attack, it was agreed that we should limit the report to necessities, so as not to impair your judgement of them.’
‘You don’t want me to think of them as killers?’
Sandy didn’t glance away from the screen, ‘Precisely.’
‘Wouldn’t have been an issue,’ she said, ‘I can separate them from what they did.’ There was a pause.
She tried to look properly at Sandy. He was a tall man, and slimly built, but getting on in years. His red hair was balding, and when he stood he had a slight tilt in his hips that suggested that he may have been a dancer. Monica tried to recall any time in which she had seen him uncomfortable or upset, but there wasn’t any. He was always just Sandy. Today however, something was subtly different. Monica realised that Sandy had a tiny bandaid on his right eyebrow. The skin around it was reddened, as if he had been grazed by something. It was the first time that she had ever seen him in any way injured. It worried her.
‘How bad was it though?’
‘Pretty gosh-darn bad,’ said Sandy, firmly, before finally turning to face her, ‘Any more questions before you go in?’
Once more flicking through the report, she turned to its earliest pages. The information on who the nine had been before this had all happened was sparse. There was barely a paragraph on each. ‘Just one: The report mentioned that they were mundanes, that they knew nothing of the otherworld prior to this event. Have they been told anything about it since?’
Sandy titled his head a little, ‘We haven’t stated anything directly concerning it to them, but, obviously, they’ve picked up some parts of it. Masks came off when we tried to neutralise them – we didn’t have much of a choice.’
‘So, they were completely unaware? No prior contact?’
‘As far as we know, none,’ Sandy responded, almost wistfully, ‘Forty-eight hours ago, they were nine completely ordinary people. Now, they are… Well, whatever they are.’
‘I understand,’ said Monica, ‘I think I’m ready to see them now.’
Sandy nodded, ‘You’ll be behind AgAl glass, which should prevent them doing anything-‘
‘No,’ said Monica, standing up, ‘No, I’ll be in there with them. They need to see that there’s someone on their side, and that’s not going to work if I’m on the other side of bulletproof glass.’
‘Monica,’ said Sandy, rising from his chair, his face almost a caricature of concern, ‘Even if you truly believe that they are innocent, these are nine newly created super-humans with little knowledge of how their abilities work, and the potential to kill you without even meaning to,’ he took a step closer to her, ‘There are better ways to make a statement.’
Monica hadn’t taken her eyes off the people in the video, ‘Right now, those people are scared, confused, and alone. They have no clue as to what’s happening or why. They need to know that someone is on their side.’
Sandy sighed, ‘Okay, okay, Mrs Principals. You can go in, but you’re going to have to take Gareth with you.’
‘Agreed,’ said Monica, quickly, but not so quickly that she’d reveal what a relief it would be to have Gareth in the room with her.
‘Good. Well, drink up.’
Monica downed the by now lukewarm coffee and made a face, ‘You can’t find someone whose superpower is making a decent cup of coffee?’
Sandy laughed, louder and more genuine than he had before, and clapped her on the shoulder, which made Monica grin in spite of herself.
The two left the little room with the monitor, into a bright, well lit corridor. Just next to the door that they had entered, leaning against the wall in a slightly less than official manner, was Gareth. He was young, looking to be in his mid twenties, with short, sensible hair and a five o’clock shadow. His uniform was one of the new Alliance-1 designs, slightly baggier and more like a jump-suit than the tight, shiny, spandex affairs of thirty years ago. The black and white blocky pattern had remained the same. He wasn’t yet high ranking enough to receive the cape, but the badge on his chest marked him as being a Peacekeeper.
When Gareth saw them, he straightened immediately, ‘Agent Sandy. Ms Jansen.’
‘At ease, Gareth, no need to pretend you weren’t slacking off,’ said Sandy grinning like a schoolteacher ruffling the hair of a mischievous child, ‘I expect you heard?’
‘That I am to accompany Ms Jansen to see the nine suspects? Yeah, I did.’
‘Then you should also know that you are to take care of Ms Jansen and ensure that absolutely, positively, no harm comes to her in that room?
‘Yep,’ said Gareth, before catching himself, ‘Yes sir.’
‘Then I want to know,’ said Sandy, in a tone suggesting that the charming schoolteacher could at any second snap and pull the cane out, ‘That you can handle this. You saw the attack. You know what those nine can do. I’m not asking if you could take them all out, but I need to know that you could get Ms Jansen out of the room before anything happens to her.’
Gareth tried as hard as he possibly could to keep his face a mask of professionalism, but even he could not hide the tiny, arrogant upturn on his mouth as he said, ‘I think I can handle it.’
Sandy scrutinised Gareth’s face. Beneath his professional exterior, the young man was confident, but not over-confident. Sandy seemed satisfied.
‘Good man,’ he said, ‘Right, I’ll leave you to it. You don’t mind if I continue to observe on the monitors do you?’
‘Be my guest,’ said Monica, ‘It’s all being recorded anyway.’
Sandy gave her one last quick smile. ‘Good luck,’ he said, and returned to the room, closing the door behind him.
Monica and Gareth strode together through the Agency building. To get to the holding room, they had to go through several identical corridors and down two flights of stairs. Monica always felt ill at ease in the Agency’s uninviting buildings, all cold spartan furnishings and angular designs. On top of that, they were always slightly too quiet. Not that she expected to hear too much noise from what was essentially a series of offices, but something about these buildings made it feel like the sound was being drawn out from around her. Her own footsteps sounded muffled and distant. Possibly, it was due to them being so far underground.
She tried to mask her unease in front of Gareth, keeping up her professional exterior. She glanced at the young man, who walked half a stride behind and to her left, to see what his feelings were. His expression, if anything, was bored.
In the brief time she glanced back at him, he made eye contact and smiled. ‘Don’t worry Ms Jansen, I’ll take care of you in there.’
‘I don’t doubt it,’ she said, ‘But in turn, I need to be sure of some things before we walk into that room.’
‘Ms Jansen,’ said Gareth, mouth tightening, ‘With all do respect, I don’t take orders from you. I take orders from Alliance-1, and those orders are to follow the orders of Agent Sandy, and he to keep you safe. Nothing else.’
‘I understand,’ said Monica quickly, ‘But it’s not an order, it’s a request. You saw the accident, and I imagine that you’re holding a lot of ill will towards these people, but in the interests of defending them, I can’t have them feeling threatened. I need them to trust me, and if we’re both going to be walking into that room together, they need to trust both of us.’
‘What are you even asking me to do?’
‘Nothing. I just want you to be as non-threatening as possible.’
‘Ms Jansen, I don’t-‘
‘Please, Gareth,’ she said.
Gareth actually made a groan that sounded like the noise teenagers make when they’ve been told to be back by eleven, just before they say ‘Fine.’
‘Fine,’ he said.
The pair stopped at a door that at first glance did not seem to be altogether different from the others that lined the hallway. Two things set it apart. The first was that a close inspection of the material would have revealed that it was of a slightly different quality from the rest of the doors in the corridor. The other doors were neat and clean, but there were some signs of wear – a little chipped paint, or a tiny amount of dust. The door that they had stopped at was so lacking in any kind of blemish that it stood out. It was clean and blank enough to have been installed that morning.
The second, was the small, middle-aged white woman who was sat outside of it.
‘Agent Pellegrini,’ said Gareth, who almost managed to disguise the sulk in his voice.
‘Gareth,’ said Pellegrini, in a tone that others might use to say the word ‘Malignant.’ Her eyes flicked to the two over her bright purple spectacles, before flicking back down to her glossy copy of this week’s Holler.
‘I’m to accompany Ms Jansen here to see the nine under the authority-‘
‘I know, I know, I know,’ she drawled, ‘Sandy called ahead.’
‘Great. Well, can we go in then?’ said Gareth, crossing his arms.
Without responding to him, Pellegrini leaned around Gareth to look at Monica. ‘Are you ready, sweetie?’ she said, a hair’s breadth short of actually sounding sympathetic.
Monica didn’t let them see her swallow, ‘Yes,’ she said.
Pellegrini leaned back in her chair, and without any indication that she had done anything at all, two things happened. Firstly, there was the ending of a sound. It was as if a low imperceptible hum that been barely audible the entire time suddenly vanished, leaving behind a more absolute silence. The second was that the door she sat next to shifted a fraction of a inch, as if it was suddenly unlocked.
Monica Jansen opened the door, and walked in to meet the nine.