“Long coat, long hair, just got through the door, has a gun,” Crystalclear said, thumb on the button of his walkie-talkie.
The reply from the officers was almost impossible to make out.
The status quo in quiet periods was for there to be two thinkers on duty at all times. They were meant to be in communication and watching each other’s backs, and they were meant to be cooperating with the officers stationed at the portal.
During the quieter times, it would have been less than perfect for his partner to be in the midst of the crowd, where it took effort for Crystalclear to keep track of him and watch the man’s back.
Relay, one of his new teammates.
It wasn’t a quiet period, as one of the day’s bigger trains had just arrived. There were supposed to be four people on duty, one shift nearly over, another just beginning, for twice the number of eyes and powers on the scene.
Yes, it could have been an accident that the other two had yet to arrive. But accidents and coincidences could just as easily be contrivances at the hands of masterminds. The radios acting up didn’t help matters.
“-ot the gun, good ca-” the voice on the other side of the walkie talkie reported, the static cutting off the very beginning and the ending.
Sure enough, the officers had the woman in the coat. One of the officers had the gun, now.
Red jacket, jeans, pointed boots, group of three, Relay communicated. Words and ideas conveyed without being spoken. Not telepathy, not sound, but impressions.
Crystalclear’s vision didn’t give him color that wasn’t the blurring around the white outlines that defined everything. Red jacket meant nothing to him. But he could see the crowd, seeing everyone at once, and he could check the shoes. It took some focus to narrow things down, to look for the pointed shoes, to observe for another few moments to see who was grouped up.
Three people, all about the same age, all men. Their heads radiated with distortions. Their focus- not on anything in particular. He saw what they were dwelling on as a series of fractures, distorted angles, and breaks that surrounded them. These things suggested things about what was going on in their heads that were more limited to the moment, covering stresses in every sense of the word.
Stress as in emotional upset, stressing the importance of something, stress as in tension and wear.
He was glad he could use the landline for this. The little room was separated from the portal and train platforms by two walls, one with a one-way pane of glass set in it. The third wall was open, so he was free to step outside and be in the thick of things within seconds, without having to worry about doors or counters. Beside him was a phone and a computer he hadn’t bothered to fiddle with – he couldn’t see the contents of the screen without pulling a crystal from his face.
He hit the button for channel one on the phone, then picked up.
“Relay reports there’s three people incoming. He got a low-level bad feeling about them. They seem stressed to me. Not an imminent danger. You might want to pull them out of line and have a chat. One in the lead has a red jacket, pointed shoes. I’ll give you more information on their positions once they’re settled in line.”
“Got it. Thank you, Crystalclear.”
“Let us know if you need anyone to sit in,” he said.
He was aware as heads throughout the crowd turned, their focus shifting to Relay, to the train, to the officers. For most, the light around them refracted into kaleidoscopic structures, cone or beak shaped, pointed this way and that. At the ends farthest from the points of focus, the open ends of the cones splayed out into nimbuses, auras, fractures.
He had been one of them, a year ago, a refugee stepping off the train to enter Earth Gimel, finding his luggage, walking up the short set of stairs to the desks, where people clustered in families and groups of friends, rather than in single file. They would be interviewed, they would be given temporary identification, and they would get their packages with information and resources.
Unlike many of them, he had waited nearly six months for access, because he’d been open about the fact he had powers. A mistake, because they had wanted to be careful, it had meant he had needed weeks and months of screens, of interviews and background checks, while other people passed through.
It wasn’t the first time something like that had happened, where he had taken too long to put the pieces together. All thinkers had their weaknesses and catches – all powers, probably, but thinkers were what he was most familiar with, and thinkers almost always had their issues with the mind. The problems of the mind were difficult to identify and fix, because they were so invisible, and the tools for diagnosis were often what part of what was broken or altered.
He had taken a considerable length of time to figure out the nuances of his power, too. The most obvious aspect was that he could see through walls, but he lost the ability to see and understand people, to see their faces or easily grasp the clothes they wore.
There was so much more to it, and he was learning more of it every week and month. The colors meant things, and he had only worked out the blues and the reds. Other colors separated from the white at times. There were a lot of greens in the crowd and along the station, pulling away from the outlines. He had ideas about what they meant, but he couldn’t say anything with confidence.
The fractures and formations in distortions around people were another part of it. There were elements to the way things broke up and distorted that had deeper meaning, things he didn’t understand in a way he could explain, but which made it easy for him to relate one personality and personality type to another, familiar one.
The portal took up much of the station in front of him. His multifaceted senses covered the tract of Gimel surrounding the portal, and the areas of Bet on the far side. His view encompassed the surroundings on the other side, the people, the terrain, and the different colors that bled out from the sharper white outlines.
You’re in the weeds, Relay communicated.
Crystalclear lifted his walkie-talkie to his mouth. “Weeds?”
Not entirely with us. Lost, or in a bit of a daze.
Crystalclear looked out beyond the portal. At the people amassed around it, human-shaped outlines with the outlines of clothes, blurs smearing around the white lines, their heads replaced with fractured, kaleidoscopic messes. A large group were in eerie unison. Singing together, possibly, or chanting.
“Yeah,” he replied, one more word for what others would perceive as a one-sided conversation.
It was his perpetual reality. To be mundane, or to be lost. The knowledge out of his reach, there if he could find out how to reach for it or connect it.
He focused more on the crowd.
His difficulty wasn’t in tracking everyone, so much as it was finding the right angles. He didn’t have eyes with his power deployed like this, and he wasn’t limited to one point of view. He set about making sure he could investigate everyone and their carry-on baggage without anyone being hidden with their outline closely matching someone they were standing in front of or behind.
He didn’t move his head as he looked back, up the stairs and out at the loosely organized lines of people. The trio had joined the line.
He used the phone, “The three people Relay wanted you guys to keep an eye out for just joined the line. They’re behind a shorter, elderly couple. One of them’s agitated.”
“Thank you, Crystalclear,” the voice on the phone replied.
While more of his focus was dwelling in that direction and area, making sure he was seeing everything from the necessary angles, he became aware of two people who others were paying a great deal of attention to.
One of them was tall, somewhat muscular, but what stood out was the storm of fractures around his head, overlapping without connecting to one another. A crown of thorns, fashioned from something that looked like especially precise breaks in glass or deep-etched frost.
The other was smaller, hunched over. She was almost the opposite, the breaks vague, cracking out to reach like a whip, aimed at nothing in particular.
He used the walkie-talkie, “I think our relief just turned up.”
Making my way to you.
Relay and the two individuals reached Crystalclear’s booth at the same time. Crystalclear stepped out, aware of the number of people who were turning to look. He tried to keep an eye on the crowd.
Relay made the introductions. “Crystalclear, this is Big Picture, and this is Ratcatcher.”
“Hello,” Big Picture said. More tight loops of breakage encircled his head rapidfire as he turned it to look at Crystalclear, and the loops bled like purple watercolor paint.
“Hello,” Crystalclear said.
“Hello. We’re the reinforthmenth,” Ratcatcher said, with a heavy lisp.
“You’re new to Foresight?” Big Picture asked.
“I am,” Crystalclear said. “Only positives so far.”
“I thought about joining,” Big Picture said. “I decided it was better to wait until things settled down. For now, I get paid for this, I keep it simple.”
“Yeth. Thimple ith good,” Ratcatcher said.
“I like the costume,” Big Picture said.
Crystalclear touched the tunic portion of his outfit.
It wasn’t anything like he’d worn with the Norfair Neighborhood Heroes. A single shoulderpad, a piece of cloth forming a kind of shawl or mantle as it extended from one corner of the shoulderpad near his heart, over his shoulder, and around to the back corner of the shoulderpad near his shoulderblade. The shoulderpad, the armor at his wrists and the armor around his legs had chunks of crystal, closely matched to the crystal that he naturally produced. Lightweight as armor went, limited to a few pieces that were as decorative as functional, but it was still armor. A band of metal ran along his chin’s edge, and that took some particular getting used to.
“Appreciated,” Crystalclear said. It was odd to reply when he was only aware of the outlines of the outfit. He had seen it in the mirror when he had been getting ready, but that memory felt faint, and he had yet to see how put together he looked with the crystals at the upper half of his face.
“I’m going to go get back to work,” Relay said. “I’ll be in communication.”
Crystalclear returned to his seat. Big Picture stood out in the open, his arms folded.
Ratcatcher joined Crystalclear in the booth, sitting on the counter by the phone.
“What do you do, Crythtalclear?” Ratcatcher asked.
“I see through walls. I can see contraband.”
“I can too,” Ratcatcher said. “I thee thmall thingth, wherever they are.”
“We might be redundant then.”
“Redundancy can help,” Big Picture said.
“Can you share your power, Big Picture?”
Big picture turned his head. Crystalclear wished he could see the big guy’s face. Knowing if the guy was frowning or smiling would help a great deal.
“It’s redundancy,” Big Picture said. He made a sound, almost a laugh. “Everything I want to focus on, I clone my brain and my mind. I can give each and every detail every bit of my attention, and I can slow down my perceptions if I want to study it more. There are a few other nuances, other things I can do with the parallel takes, sharing, but you don’t need all of the details.”
“You can spend the equivalent of a few minutes studying every possible clue?” Crystalclear asked.
“Weeks. Months, if I want.”
“Sounds as if it could have its drawbacks.”
“Don’t we all?” Big Picture asked.
Crystalclear was aware that Ratcatcher wasn’t alone. He turned his head a little, then pointed at the pocket of Ratcatcher’s top. It was a sleeveless top, tight-fitting in the way a costume was supposed to be, but it had a hoodie-like pouch in the front. There was a small life form in there, the thing’s perspective fuzzy in a way that suggested it was asleep, in whole or in part.
Ratcatcher made a pleased sound, then reached into the pouch. The disturbance woke the creature, but she didn’t act like it was upset as she held it in her two hands.
Crystalclear could guess what the thing was from its dimensions and Ratcatcher’s name. “Does it have a name?”
“Raththputin,” Ratcatcher said. She picked up a walkie-talkie, “The attractive older gentleman in the peacoat, hairy earth and eyelatheth to die for. Thomething thown into the coat. Naughty.”
“…I can see Ratcatcher has joined us…” the walkie talkie buzzed in response. The buzzing turned into crackling. “…nimize colorful commenta…”
“Radio’th garbage today,” Ratcatcher observed.
“I’m sorry we’re late,” Big Picture said. “Feels like we took a step backward, citywide. There’s word of a potential transportation strike. Our usual bus driver didn’t show, we had to wait for the next. Construction sites between NYC and Boston are locked down, they aren’t doing anything except getting in the way.”
“Feels like we should be out there, not here,” Crystalclear said.
“I know that feeling. It’s often a trap.”
Crystalclear turned toward Big Picture.
“I joined the military, before I got powers. I was thinking something similar when I did. That things at home were shit, but I was needed out there. We didn’t fix anything out there, and we came home to find things were worse.”
Crystalclear was going to reply, but he was interrupted by the lisping young woman.
“Buckthom lady thtepping off the train,” Ratcatcher said. “Bra that doethn’t fit, run in her thtocking. Cavity thearch, if you pleathe.”
“This isn’t you being funny again, Rat?” Big Picture asked.
“I’m being good, thank you very mush.”
Crystalclear looked. There was something suspended in the middle of the blur that was the woman. He held up his walkie-talkie. “Seconding Ratcatcher on this one. She’s got something stowed.”
I see her, Relay communicated. Noise surrounding her is similar to a few others we spotted earlier.
“I remember,” Crystalclear said, through the walkie talkie. He’d noticed but he hadn’t been sure how common it was or how much of a thread ran through it all until he’d had it point out. That weakness of his again. “There have been one or two of these small-time smugglers on every train, all day.”
Big Picture said, “It might be worth checking what’s going on in Bet. Could be a gang, strong-arming people into going through, or offering a head start in Gimel if they’ll smuggle something through.”
“It might not go that well,” Crystalclear said. “Too easy to get sucked in right from the start, not being allowed to leave once you’ve made that delivery.”
“The ugly kid with the runny nothe hath clutter in hith bag. Thyringeth.”
“…heckin…” the radio crackled.
Big Picture picked up his walkie talkie, “The woman with him isn’t his mother, either. Better to have them get picked out of line and taken away for an interview.”
The radio crackled with the affirmative.
Slowly, the train and the platform emptied. They kept an eye out for the drugs, for the violence, for the people who were especially angry or scared.
One of the train cars remained filled. Crystalclear looked through, and saw the people within sitting, calm, not reaching for their things.
“What’s the status of car five?” he asked. “There are a few guns in there.”
Ratcatcher pulled the keyboard closer to her, she typed and then responded, “Thpecial cathe. VIP.”
“They’ve got a case fifty-three in there.”
“Weld, according to the computer. Ethcorting.”
“Weld,” Crystalclear said. He was familiar with the name. “Good to know.”
Crowd is thinning out, Relay communicated. I’ll go say hi.
Crystalclear watched as people sorted out. The platform emptied, and the officers on the scene did what they could to get others moving along, helping with bags and pointing people in the right direction.
“You’re bleeding,” Ratcatcher observed.
“Me?” Crystalclear asked.
“At the corner of your eye,” she said.
He checked, touching the spot in question and finding the bead of blood with his sense of touch. Sure enough, she was right. “It’s a thing that happens. Doesn’t mean anything. Excuse me.”
“Eckthuthed,” she said.
He touched one of the crystals that was sticking up and out of that eye socket, gripped it, and hauled it free. He could feel the glass edge slide against the inside of his eyelid, the root of it hauling free of the floor of his eye socket, and he could feel the fluids inside his eye stir.
“You jutht made it worth,” she said.
“I’m fine. I never bleed for long. I try to be careful, so I don’t scare people, but it doesn’t bother me much.”
“Good to know,” she said. “I know all about that.”
He pulled it free, a foot-long block of crystal, and laid it carefully down on the counter. He blinked a few times with his one eye, noticed that Ratcatcher had taken off her mask, gray furred and full-face, and decided to keep his gaze averted, for privacy’s sake, and because looking at her would let her see his face.
He concentrated, and he produced another chunk of glass, feeling it stab from the underside of his eye and out, sliding through everything in the way without doing real damage. He was careful to shape it in his mind so there wouldn’t be any sharp edges resting against his eyelid or brow.
He turned his face Ratcatcher’s way. “How do I look? Symmetrical?”
“Thank you,” he said.
“Thank you,” she said, with emphasis on the ‘you’.
“Not many people look me in the fathe when my mathk is off and keep from flinching,” she said.
Crystalclear’s response was cut short.
Weld wants us, Relay said. Diplomatic thing.
“Weld is asking for me,” Crystalclear said. “Good luck, guys.”
“We’ll get to know each other, I’m sure,” Big Picture said.
“Good luck,” Ratcatcher said.
Relay was already coordinating the officers. The path that led from platform to the intake center was being closed off, a metal shuttered door sliding closed. Another set of doors were being unlocked and opened.
VIPs indeed, it seemed, and from what Crystalclear could see, they were only human.
Crystalclear approached the train car, standing beside Relay. Weld and Narwhal were standing nearby.
Narwhal looked rather spectacular to Crystalclear’s vision, given the emphasis on outlines, and her having dressed up in very small, outlined objects.
“Look after them,” she said. “I’ll see the way is clear.”
“Got it,” Weld said. “You would be Crystalclear?”
“Good to meet you. I didn’t think you were one of us.”
“Oh, I’m not. I can go from this to… not this,” Crystalclear said. He was suddenly aware he wasn’t sure what terminology was okay or not okay with the C-53s.
“That’s good to hear. Closer to Narwhal than anything, then. I’ve heard good things, Crystalclear. Foresight is lucky to have you.”
“Thank you. Likewise, with you and the Wardens.”
“Were you around for that broken trigger incident a week and a half ago?”
“I was,” Crystalclear said. “I wasn’t in a position to do much.”
“This situation here follows from that. We’ve got visitors, and we want to keep things calm and safe. Foresight said we should make use of you and Relay to help keep an eye on things.”
“Ah,” Crystalclear said. “Alright.”
There was a pause. “Are you okay to do this?”
“Yeah,” Crystalclear said. He realized he didn’t sound confident, and tried again. “Yeah.”
He wasn’t sure it was alright. He’d been volunteered for something and he hadn’t explicitly been told. It was a level of disconnection from the authority that felt uncomfortably familiar and disconcerting.
It made him think of his aunt. It also made him think of Big Picture’s statements about it being better to wait.
“We’re bodyguards and protection for the Gimel side of things. The other guys brought their own protection.”
The other guys? Crystalclear thought.
All thinkers had their weaknesses. Most hated not knowing things. Most, by way of how their powers gave them an edge in one respect, had a way of missing other things. Crystalclear’s vision gave him a lot, but it made some obvious things impossible to grasp.
Crystalclear’s focus broadened as he tried to take in everything necessary to keep an eye on things. He looked at the crowd, noted who was reacting to the shutters being closed, and tried to keep tabs on them. He watched the other heroes, tracked the officers, and tried to wrap his head around the fractured messes that were their heads and the ever-shifting contents of those heads.
“Ratcatcher seemed to take to you,” Relay commented.
“Did she?” Crystalclear asked.
“That’s the impression I got. You didn’t seem too bothered, either.”
“She seemed like a nice kid. Weird but good.”
Relay made a small sound. “Don’t, uh, say that around her. She’s older than you. Heh.”
Crystalclear smiled, but he felt just a little anxious. There were things he had liked about the NNH group with Tempera, Longscratch and Fume Hood. Big Picture had talked about the merits of simplicity.
Thinker issues. He hated being out of the loop. It constantly felt like he was. Even when it was with things that pertained to himself.
“Sorry,” Relay said. He’d apparently picked something up.
“It’s okay,” Crystalclear said.
The group was departing the train, now.
“We’ll be using the emergency stairwell,” Relay said. “We go upstairs, we’ll find a vantage point, they’ll have their meeting with the people who are already waiting there, then a few of them are going to go tour Gimel. Things are out of our hands once they do, they’ve been warned about that. The newcomers want to see the city they’ve been helping to build.”
“I heard about some of this,” Crystalclear said. “These are people from an alternate Earth?”
He didn’t get his answer, as the people approached.
Three men, with their entourage, men with guns. Their heads were interesting. Leader and soldier, they were very in sync, much like the group that was still gathered outside the Bet portal were of similar minds as they chanted or sang together. They felt like an odd fit. Foreign worlders?
Leaders of Earth Cheit. Abrahamic theocrats. They’re our guests, here about the people of theirs who died in the broken trigger incident.
A serious subject. Crystalclear was aware of a few other things that had come up in regard to the group, until the broken trigger had consumed everyone’s attention. The discussions in the late-night media had been derailed by the deaths of the ninety-two individuals caught by the broken trigger.
“If you’ll follow us,” Weld said.
They walked up the stairs, with Weld in front, and Relay and Crystalclear toward the rear. The armed guard trailed even further behind, with one waiting at the base of the stairwell.
They had a bit of a distance to walk to reach the room at the top. It looked like a ball room, with fancy curtains, a lacquered floor, and lots of empty space. A table was set to one side, and there were curtains closed that didn’t stop the light from passing through. Sheers, possibly, to obscure the view of the world outside, or perhaps more importantly, to obscure those on the outside from seeing those within.
People were seated at the table already, paperwork around them.
The one closest to the door was a serious looking woman, slender, in a blouse and a skirt that highlighted how narrow she was. The belt of her skirt cinched in at the waist, emphasizing her figure. She had a lot of the anxiety that the refugees departing the train had had, but she didn’t show it in how she sat or how she moved as she stood to greet the men.
Sierra Kiley, Relay communicated. Board member of Rock Bay Reconstruction Group. That’s one of the biggest construction firms, with its roots in Brockton Bay. She’s a candidate for mayor of the Megalopolis, but she’s not expected to win. Foresight thinks she has her hat in the ring for other reasons. Access, possibly. We know she has ties to organized crime, if you couldn’t guess from her background in Brockton Bay. She doesn’t necessarily know we know.
Next were a couple, male and female. She wore a nice suit-dress. He wore a dress shirt, slacks, and carried the paperwork. Their focus was sharp, they clearly worked well together from how well they coordinated. As with Big Picture, there was something else going on with the man’s perceptions. He wasn’t a cone- his perceptions were covering a lot of ground, and his fractures were very different from the norm. They were closer to being etches.
Jeanne Wynn and her assistant. CEO of Mortari, second of the large construction groups. Jeanne might be too. She’s a more serious candidate for mayor, she’s running, she and a lot of others think she’ll win.
Crystalclear was bothered that he was getting filled in on things he already had some knowledge of, but felt disconnected in other things. He’d known about Jeanne. She had recently put up her proposals online, for how she wanted and expected to run things if she won.
The person who won mayorship of Gimel, if they weren’t killed in an uprising, would likely go on to be leader of Gimel as a whole.
We suspect the assistant is a parahuman.
He was, Crystalclear knew. He resolved to communicate that when he could.
Others were named and identified by Relay. Mr. Nieves, another prospective mayor, though he didn’t have the footing the others did, his chances were better than Ms. Kiley’s. Mr. Buckner was at the forefront of the burgeoning media enterprise in Gimel, bringing television to the masses.
Stay put and stay silent.
The voice wasn’t Relay’s, but it was easy to imagine as Relay’s, with it being so vivid.
Crystalclear had a confused and fractured memory of his early childhood. The woman he remembered growing up with was not the woman he’d spent his late childhood and adolescence with. His aunt had explained the situation for him, saying his mother hadn’t been well, he’d been taken away from her for his safety.
She had said a lot of things over the years. He had believed most, and because other things had occupied his attention, he hadn’t given the remainder enough focus.
Normally, trigger events emphasizing isolation, loss, cut ties, and betrayal tended to lead to master powers. Or, rather, master powers tended to go to people who were going to deal with those situations.
Any attachment he had felt to his aunt had faded over the years, long before he had triggered. She hadn’t cared. So long as he behaved and didn’t cause a fuss, she had been happy to not have to devote much attention to him. There was nothing lost, so that aspect of things hadn’t factored in.
So, naturally, he had avoided causing a fuss.
It had only been later that their fragile reality had come crashing down around them. The police were closing in on him, he was no longer young, and where a young, clean cut white boy had flown under the radar, a teenaged white boy with pimples hadn’t. It had turned out that his aunt wasn’t his aunt at all. Her only relation to him was that she had stolen him from his real mother.
The questions had come, hours of interrogation, his lawyer guiding him. Hadn’t he put the pieces together? Hadn’t he seen? Why hadn’t he asked more questions? He hadn’t looked at what he was delivering to homes even once in the past few years?
No, he’d said. No, he’d never looked. He had never really considered. He had only wanted to exist.
The police had been upset, angry, hostile. His lawyer had been frustrated, because anything, anything at all could have led to a plea deal or him getting off free. His ‘aunt’ and her boyfriend were upset, because they blamed him for their being arrested, and they had used a proxy to threaten him.
He had been sufficiently scared and lost to trigger.
Now he stood guard. He was trying to exist, to do what good he could, and he wanted to pay a little more attention than he once had, even as his power made that very easy on the surface and very difficult when it came to the deeper analysis.
The initial introductions were wrapping up. The theocrats of Cheit were saying a brief prayer, heads bowed.
People settled into their seats, empty seats between groups, serving as a kind of separation.
One word. It had been said by the lead theocrat, no preamble, and it was enough to be followed by silence.
“I say it not because I believe in it or want it,” he went on, “But because the people at home wanted me to convey it.”
“We’ve had a strong working relationship thus far,” Jeanne said.
“We have,” the theocrat said.
“Forgive me,” Nieves said. “I’m lost. It came up before, but things got in the way. What exactly is the working relationship?”
Jeanne explained, “Cheit has graciously provided Earth Gimel with supplies for reconstruction. They supplied us with food and other things that enabled us to weather the first winter. A hard season.”
“I remember,” Nieves said. “I know this much. But what exactly did Cheit get in the bargain?”
“Goodwill,” the theocrat said.
“Goodwill?” Nieves asked.
“We have an awful lot of very awful people at our disposal, to put things lightly,” Kiley said. “We don’t really think anyone wants actual war, do we?”
“As I was instructed, I brought it up,” the theocrat said. “It is officially on the table.”
Crystalclear was still, listening. He didn’t miss the glance that Weld and Narwhal shared. Neither of them budged an inch.
“Goodwill is a matter of faith,” Jeanne said. “The understanding was that they would share their excess, out of the goodness of their hearts. We, in turn, would manage our own.”
“Six of Earth Cheit’s citizens are dead. Five godly men and a woman, all with their families. By all accounts, they died in a terrible, protracted way.”
“Because of a broken trigger,” Jeanne said. “Outside of our control. Surely you understand.”
“These ‘triggers’, as we understand it, are the result of strife and upset. Your people were upset because of how Mortari and RBR have handled your subordinates.”
Crystalclear watched carefully, his eyes on all of the people present, on the nearby rooftops, and on the area below, to make sure nobody was attempting entry.
Jeanne and the theocrat seemed to be the ones in control over this conversation. Jeanne had a parahuman with her, and the parahuman was studying the room, but nothing suggested he was communicating with his superior. Nothing about the way things refracted and moved around his head, nothing about the colors. Purple here and there, but spotty, brief.
If she was a superior at all, that was. It was very possible the ‘assistant’ was the one truly in charge.
“What would you have us do?” Kiley asked.
The theocrat answered, “We want you to be in control. Control your people, organize, avoid similar situations. We are happy to be generous to our less fortunate neighbors, but we cannot have your troubles become our troubles.”
“We’re working on that,” Kiley said.
“Are you married, Ms. Kiley?” the theocrat asked.
“I don’t see how that’s relevant.”
“That would be a no, then. I prefer to work with married individuals, like Mrs. Wynn here. They understand the difficulties of a long term relationship, the compromises and deeper knowledge it takes to make things work.”
“I wouldn’t be where I am if I wasn’t competent. Trust me, Mr. Aguirre, I’ve earned my place.”
“So I’ve heard,” the theocrat answered. His tone was such that it was as cutting a response as an outright denial or dismissal. “Mrs. Wynn, you’re prepared to organize and control things?”
“We’ve already taken steps. You’ll see measurable change in coming weeks.”
“Good. Ms. Kiley, you’re welcome to prove me wrong in my judgment about you. A lot depends on this. We are happy to keep supplying you with everything you could need, we believe in generosity, but it’s contingent on your successes. We know which pies each of you have your fingers in. If one of you succeed, we’ll gladly back you. If both succeed, we’ll back you both. If others step up and prove themselves, we’ll back them.”
“Provided we do well enough at making the most of what you provide.”
“Please don’t disappoint,” the theocrat said. He placed his hand on the paperwork in front of him. “You know what’s on the table.”
Ms. Kiley said, “I don’t think I’m in your good books, Mr. Aguirre, I think I don’t lower myself any further in your eyes by saying this-”
“What you say or don’t say has little to do with what I feel about you, Ms. Kiley. I believe in deeds.”
“-You do not want a war with Gimel. We have so very little to lose, and I can tell you, I know this very well. We have some very awful people at our disposal. You can threaten bombs and armies. We can threaten nightmares come to life and life turned to nightmares.”
“I believe you,” Aguirre said. “I know the kinds of people you interact with, Ms. Kiley. Part of the reason I’m here is that I’ve worked directly with some individuals and situations of that breed, who appeared in Cheit. I wish I could say with confidence that I could make the people I report to believe the same. They would need to see it with their own eyes, and by then it would be too late.”
“That’s possible,” Kiley said.
“I’ve laid out what the people in charge believe. I can report your feelings on this and come back another day, but I don’t think this is liable to change. They want security, you want supply.”
“Succinctly put,” Jeanne said.
“Tell me what you would need, if we were to extend good faith and renew supply for your construction.”
“Construction is stalled. Transportation is stalling. Crime is surging,” Nieves said.
“Which are things we’ll get a handle on,” Jeanne said, tersely. “Yes, please, let’s talk supply. Concrete, lumber, and food, to start with.”
“Let me see, paperwork, papers, thank you, Charles.”
The discussion continued.
Crystalclear held his tongue, but he could see the way the constructions around the other parahumans’ heads were operating, the cracks that were forming and gathering, and the bleeding of the colors. Blue-green tints, for many.
“They’ve been giving us supply for nothing?” Nieves asked, raising his voice. “You idiots. You’ve profited off of their so-called generosity, but you’ve been selling us out.”
“They were going to look for a foothold, whatever we did,” Jeanne said. “They wanted security, and that wouldn’t change whatever we did. Allowing them to help provided some of that security.”
“It provided them leverage and the impression they have a say in how Gimel is run!”
“They do have a say. They’re our neighbors, and they outnumber us,” Kiley said. She sounded tired.
The theocrats had departed. The people had changed seats, to sit closer together. Jackets had been removed and hung on the backs of chairs, waters and coffees obtained. The discussion continued, on a different front. A scattered, small group of people trying to find a way forward against a very large, united group.
The argument continued, heated, terse. Standing around the edges of the room, the parahumans exchanged looks, then walked over to where the coffee and water was being supplied.
“What do you think?” Weld asked. Narwhal stood beside him.
“Jeanne has been in contact with Cheit for a long time,” Relay said. “Since Gold Morning?”
“Her assistant is a parahuman,” Crystalclear said. “Something about the way his head is put together. Thinker. They may have been communicating, maybe not.”
“Kiley was communicating with people throughout. Earpiece,” Relay said. “You didn’t see?”
“Heads and surrounding objects get murky,” Crystalclear said, his voice quiet.
“We asked you two here for a reason,” Narwhal said. “You have strong backgrounds, and people see you as trustworthy.”
“Foresight is taking on a role as Wardens adjunct,” Weld said. “A… discreet role.”
“You want us to be your watchdogs,” Crystalclear said.
“They’re keeping too close an eye on the Wardens themselves. We could use observers and more covert operatives.”
“Watching them?” Crystalclear asked, tilting his head toward the window. He tilted his head toward the table. “Or watching them?”
“That you asked proves we were right to ask,” Weld said.
Crystalclear bit his tongue. His instinct was to say Weld was wrong. That he was the wrong person. He missed critical things, by consequence of his power being what it was.
He’d joined the NNH to change things, to be a real piece in something greater, rather than a cog in the machine, and that had fallen to pieces.
But by saying all of that that, he would be relegating himself to Big Picture’s small-picture view of the world. Subsisting, looking after refugees, doing small things, instead of what he’d hoped for with the NNH. He would be saying he didn’t have what it took.
“I’m in,” Relay said. “But you already guessed that.”
“Yes,” Narwhal said. “Crystalclear?”
Crystalclear nodded. “I will. One question, though.”
“If you have us doing this, what do you have Advance Guard and the Attendant doing?”