The board room is designed to be subtly unsettling. It’s large and windowless, it appears to be circular, with a long table running up the middle of the room. Appearances are deceiving: it’s actually a slight oval, and the table is set slightly off kilter from the oval. People who don’t know the trick feel ever-increasing levels of anxiety as they subconsciously realize something is off but can’t identify what. Jason figured out the trick, so the room doesn’t put him off the way it did, once.
The Chairman, however… that’s a different story altogether.
The Chairman sits at the far end of the table, his features concealed in darkness. He stares down at a mission brief—Jason’s—and reads in silence. Jason stands at the other end of the table, not daring to sit, and waits patiently for him to finish.
As always, Jason finds himself trying to catch a glimpse of the older man’s face. As always, he fails. All he sees beyond the thick head of silver hair styled in a classic executive haircut is one furrow at the top of the man’s forehead, and then his face is cloaked in shadow. Jason wonders yet again at how the lighting in the room is arranged in order to achieve that effect. There are no obvious customizations to the room lighting that he can see.
Maybe it’s not the room. Maybe it’s him.
Jason suppresses a shiver and forces himself to wait patiently.
The Chairman continues reading. Jason focuses on the wrinkle on the Chairman’s forehead, wondering if it’s there because the man is concentrating, or if it’s there because he’s angry. It could go either way.
Finally the Chairman leans back in his chair, the silver in his hair fading into the shadows until all Jason can see is the shadowy outline of his head. The fingers of the Chairman’s right hand—well-manicured nails, no other distinguishing features—slide over the top of the brief, then push it forward, just an inch.
“Why don’t you give me your take on this report.” The Chairman has a rich, powerful voice, full of strength and experience. “Reports tend to focus on the what. I want to know the why.”
Jason takes a moment to collect his thoughts.
“It’s a mixed bag,” he says finally. “There’s no question the loss of the facility was a setback. There’s absolutely no question the inability to recover most of the data will affect our timeline. But the test itself was an unqualified success—Project Recall is now in Phase Three.”
“Why did you deploy the golem and the portal?”
“Mr. Kline?” The Chairman’s voice carries a hint of impatience.
Jason blinks once. “Sorry. That’s part of a whole side of Project Recall that is still very new to me. I’m not evading, I’m trying to put it in context.”
The Chairman nods once, then waits.
Jason takes a few more seconds to sort out his thoughts, takes a breath, and begins. “After we caught the moles, you increased my team’s access to the program. The golem was an asset listed in a list of materials in… I can’t remember the name of the brief offhand, I included it in the report.”
The Chairman nods again.
“I confess I don’t really understand… magic,” Jason says. “I accept that it is fundamentally different from metahuman abilities, but I don’t, at this point, appreciate that difference. But when the Sorrel-Eades facility was attacked, the attackers managed to hack into and disable the teleporters. We needed to evacuate the personnel. As to the golem, I hoped it would kill them. It very nearly did. As it is, it provided our personnel with the time they needed to evacuate, which we needed to do to salvage the operation.”
“Why the people?”
Jason blinks. “Sorry?”
The Chairman laughs softly. “I’m not chastising you, Mr. Kline. I’m not a monster who rejoices at the thought of sacrificing my personnel in order to achieve long-term goals. But it’s necessary, from time to time, and everyone who signs on understands that it’s a possibility. It’s something Andrew understood quite well.”
Jason nods. Andrew Estovich had been a member of the Haruspex Board of Directors. He’d been sacrificed in a successful attempt to flush out three moles. He’d been a willing sacrifice—some of the theatre surrounding the op had been based on his input.
“So when I ask,” the Chairman continues, “I’m doing so to understand why you decided saving the personnel was a better choice than using them to slow the enemy’s advance while we tried to recover the test data.”
“There was no guarantee that we’d be able to move all the data we needed in time,” Jason says. “Especially once Curveball’s team had breached security. Also, I didn’t want to risk the chance that they’d trace the data transfer to another facility. That’s how they located Sorrel-Eades…”
A few weeks ago Crossfire had attacked the TriHealth building in Manhattan. Jason and his team had assumed they were trying to get at the protected data stored on site, but that had been a ruse. Instead, they’d forced the facility to dump its data in a panic, and traced the data transfer to Farraday City.
“I am disappointed you overlooked that,” the Chairman says.
Jason sighs. “I am too, sir. They were… clever. I didn’t expect that, based on their reputation.”
“I can’t blame you for that,” the Chairman says. “I didn’t expect that level of subtlety from them either. I suspect that is something they encourage. We need to update their profiles. But to your point: you didn’t feel we had the time to successfully and safely recover the test data.”
“That’s right,” Jason says. “But we could attempt to destroy as much of the data as possible and recover the personnel. The personnel were the ones who actually developed the strain that got us to Phase Three, so we have the knowledge and experience needed to move forward. It will take a little more time to reconstruct everything, but all the knowledge we need is there.”
“All well reasoned,” the Chairman says, “but why, specifically, did you choose the portal and the golem?”
“I…” All Jason can do is shrug. “As I said, I don’t really understand magic, and I admit that using an asset before you understand it can be very risky. But I knew we had to evacuate the personnel, and it wouldn’t be affected by the teleportation net hack because it didn’t rely on technology. If I hadn’t seen that file, I would have sent in an air team instead… and they probably would have been soundly defeated.”
The Chairman says nothing.
“If I’ve overstepped my bounds—“
“No,” the Chairman says. “There’s nothing tactically wrong with your decision. I think it was the correct one to make. But there will be consequences. I don’t mean I’m going to punish you—I don’t punish my personnel for making hard choices, especially if they haven’t been given all the relevant information—I mean, rather, that it has created something of an international incident.”
“It has?” Jason frowns. “We’ve been monitoring all the standard channels, and while the storm has certainly attracted a lot of attention, there’s been no chatter at all about the fight or the facility.”
“I refer to a much smaller, but potentially more dangerous, international community,” the Chairman says. “The practice of magic has a number of rules, Mr. Kline. I have broken many of them, and I plan to break more. But if too many are broken too fast, it attracts unwanted attention. The powers behind Farraday City are practitioners, and they are not our allies. It’s analogous to a country discovering a hostile power has installed a secret nuclear missile base on their sovereign soil.”
“I see,” Jason says. “Why did we put our… ‘secret nuclear missile base’ there to begin with?”
“The benefit outweighed the risks,” the Chairman says. “Even now, that’s true. There was a reason the powers behind Farraday City claimed the place to begin with. That reason also drew us there. I’m not sure how to explain it in layman’s terms, let’s just call it a ‘location of strategic value’ for now.”
“All right,” Jason says. “What are the consequences?”
“I don’t know,” the Chairman says. “Not yet. We’d already attracted the attention of Farraday City when we sent Plague after Curveball. Their response showed more restraint than I expected, but I don’t think we can continue to expect a soft touch going forward.”
“As to the other powers… they are, at present, an unknown variable, and I have put Mara in charge of handling them. If she comes to you with a new set of operating parameters that you don’t understand, accept that she does so at my behest.”
Jason nods again.
“You have, over the course of your career, been involved in activities that are…” The Chairman hesitates, choosing his words carefully. “…distasteful.”
“It’s part of the job,” Jason says.
“It is,” the Chairman agrees. “Even so, you may not be prepared for what is to come. When people use the term necessary evil they do so to distance themselves from the horrors they’re discussing. It is much easier to inflict suffering on someone who is relatively innocent when you tell yourself it’s necessary. It becomes even easier when you glorify that suffering and turn it into a heroic sacrifice. Dulce et Decorum est/Pro patria mori.”
It is sweet and right to die for your country. Jason vaguely remembers the line from a poem he had to read in English class.
“Magic,” the Chairman says, “will strip away those barriers and leave you completely exposed to the full depravity of the horrors you will inflict. There is no pulling away from it. Most who grapple with it go mad—it’s one of the few defenses we have. A very few continue on, carrying the burden of that horror with them. I will not call them fortunate.”
The Chairman sighs. “I try very hard to keep my organization as insulated from those horrors as I can, but it’s not always possible. In the months to come I expect sacrifices will be necessary. I am not using that term in its modern sense.”
“You’re not,” Jason says.
“I am not,” the Chairman says. “There are times, Mr. Kline, when payment must be rendered in blood. Power is always paid in blood, and the toll is always high. And if it appears, in this world, that evil men always hold the reins of power, it is because they are more willing to render payment.”
There is a note of weariness, even sadness, in the Chairman’s voice.
“Thank you, Mr. Kline, that will be all for now.”