Shades of Red: Part Three

Submitted by C B Wright on
Haruspex Analytics

Jason Kline sits on the sofa outside the Chairman’s private office and forces himself not to fidget—a minor tic, easily mastered, but the urge to do it never quite goes away. He glances down at the glass coffee table, gaze idly passing over the magazines set strategically in front of him. They’re all trade mags, focusing on the Intelligence industry. They’re not the real ones, of course—people didn’t leave those lying around. No, these were the ones that were shown to the public, that covered technology and trends that were in play five to ten years ago.

He doesn’t bother picking any of them up. Haruspex is years ahead of everyone in the industry. The articles in those magazines are ancient history.

Jason slips into a semi-reflective reverie as he waits. He takes care to betray no sign of anxiety or impatience. Even if the Chairman can see past outward discipline—and Jason is pretty sure the man can do just that—it’s still useful to demonstrate that the discipline exists. Exert as much control over the environment that you can, and if you can’t, display your mastery over yourself. That’s how you keep your head in a new situation… and this is a new situation.

He’d never been called to the Chairman’s office before. He didn’t even know the Chairman had one, until yesterday. Once again he mentally smooths away wrinkles of unease, once again the urge to fidget fades into the background. Once again he maintains his image of serene calm.

The phone on the receptionist’s desk buzzes, a harsh, low sound that hurts his ears. The nondescript man behind the desk picks up the phone, listens intently for a moment, then returns the receiver to its cradle.

“The Chairman will see you now.” The nondescript man behind the desk doesn’t bother looking up from his work. The wall next to the couch clicks, sinks inward, then slides to the right, revealing a warmly-lit room with dark, bare walls.

“Thank you.” Jason stands, smooths out the creases in his jacket, then steps into the Chairman’s office.

The office is simple, modern, and expensive while avoiding opulence and excess. The carpet is light gray, almost white, and immaculately clean. There are no windows. The walls are dark, and unadorned save for a single picture.

The Chairman sits, face shrouded by shadow, as he leans back in a leather executive’s chair, writing on a pad of lined paper. There is no computer or desk phone, though an unobtrusive intercom sits on the far right corner of his large, glass-and-steel-framed desk.

Jason stands just inside the opening, unsure what to do. The door hisses softly as unseen hydraulics slide it back firmly into place. In moments the wall looks seamless.

The Chairman continues writing. “One moment longer, if you don’t mind.”

Jason nods. “Of course.” He turns his attention to the lone picture on the wall, examining it with interest. It’s an aerial photograph of a cemetery, set diagonally in a large brown square of land, surrounded on three sides by peaceful green fields, partially hemmed in by a dense forest on the fourth. Off in the distance, a white mist settles over the land, partially obscuring rolling hills that disappear into the horizon.

The Chairman returns to his work, his pen moving across the page steadily and with confidence. When he reaches the end of the page he stops, looks over his work, and nods to himself in satisfaction. He opens a desk drawer and sets the pad down inside. The pen returns to a holder on his desk, the desk drawer closes shut.

“The cemetery at Lonsdale,” the Chairman says.

Jason searches his memory. “The Somme?”

“Yes.”

“You fought at the Somme?”

“Yes.”

Jason frowns, dimly recalling that the majority of the graves in Lonsdale are British. “For England?”

“No,” the Chairman says. “The French. What is the current status of our New York activities?”

“Hard to say…” He tears his gaze away from the picture. “Special Agent Nuzzo reports that, as far as he can tell, they consider Darius’ explanation credible. But he also reports that Agent Henry doesn’t appear to rely as heavily on his power as our intelligence suggested. I’ve asked my team to update his files accordingly.”

The Chairman nods. “A man with the ability to detect lies. Such a simple gift, in an age where others can break the speed of sound, bend steel, and cover the earth with fire. So simple, and so profoundly inconvenient.”

“Fortunately both he and the DHS have taken great pains to limit its versatility,” Jason says.

“I’m surprised he’s still alive, to be perfectly honest. Imagine knowing, truly knowing, when someone is lying to you. Constantly, with no way to turn it off. Many would cut their throats, rather than have to live with such knowledge. What is Nuzzo’s plan going forward?”

“He would like to stage a raid that will convince Agent Henry he’s discovered something important. Something we can monitor and control.”

“I’m surprised,” the Chairman says. “I thought he would advocate killing them.”

Jason shakes his head. “That would be the most convenient outcome for us in the long term, but he feels it’s unlikely we could do that without compromising ourselves. I agree with his assessment, for what it’s worth.”

“As do I. I’m simply surprised that he does.” The Chairman chuckles, amused. “Very well. Go forward with the feint. Keep me informed. How are we with Project Recall?”

“Making progress,” Jason says. “Our scientists managed to reconstruct most of our last experiment, and even made some refinements I find encouraging.”

“Have you learned what caused the deviation in the previous test?”

“No,” Jason admits. “We’ve been unable to reproduce Subject Fourteen’s immunity. And since we no longer have access to him… we’re not sure how to proceed.”

The Chairman sighs. “Regrettable. He was, most likely, on Thorpe’s island. Is there any news on that front?”

“We don’t know,” Jason says. “As soon as Thorpe realized we used government satellites to find him, he put a stop to it. During the attack we could only observe from a distance. We saw one cargo plane take off from the island. As far as we can tell, it was lost at sea… but I’m not sure we can trust that assumption.”

“Why?” the Chairman asks.

“LaFleur survived,” Jason says. “Given what you’ve told us about the attack, I’m hard-pressed to come up with a reason why more wouldn’t. At the very least we should assume Regiment, Scrapper Jack, and Vigilante still live.”

The Chairman leans back in his chair, head tilted up. His face is still in shadow, obscuring his features, but Jason can see his forehead wrinkle in thought.

“Better to be safe,” he says finally. “Come up with some contingencies. But let’s move forward under the assumption that we succeeded. We can’t afford to slip farther behind schedule than we already are.”

“Yes, sir.”

The Chairman stands. “Just remember, we don’t need to beat them.” He pushes his chair in, steps around his desk, and walks across the room to Jason, shadows swirling over the contours of his face. “We need only to survive. To persist long enough to put the plan in motion. Once it is done, there’s no taking it back. Once it is done, we simply run—we all run. And then we wait and watch as things unfold.”

“If some of them have survived,” Jason says, “and if they know what we’re planning to do… well. They’ll be very committed to stopping us.”

“Then we must be just as committed,” the Chairman says. “Committed to seeing it through, to the very bitter end.”

Jason nods wordlessly. They stand, shoulder to shoulder, staring at the picture of Lonsdale.

“I had never been in a war before,” the Chairman says. “I was very young. Full of stories, though I was old enough to realize that they were stories. I met veterans who told me truer stories, and while I believed them, I didn’t understand them. Even if I had… well. I’m not sure it would have helped.”

Jason nods again, unsure what to say.

“I did very little, at the Somme.” The Chairman takes a step forward, his gaze never breaking from the picture. “I sat in trenches. I shot my rifle when they told me to shoot. I tried very hard not to think about the smell. That is how I survived the war—I did the pieces I could, and tried not to put it in context.”

“You said you were part of the French army,” Jason says.

The Chairman nods. “Sixth Army.”

“So why a picture of Lonsdale? Those are mostly British graves.”

The Chairman laughs softly. “I haven’t been that partisan in a very long time. No, this picture is important because of the British graves. The British Empire was the least prepared of all of us, and in the first month they suffered for it. The Sixth Army lost nearly 50,000 men in July. Britain lost more than three times that.”

“I remember learning that,” Jason says, “but it’s hard to feel the weight of those numbers.”

“History, in the abstract, is a terrible teacher. It can only show us events, and the dry, crumbling remnants of the rationalizations that were spoken aloud to justify them. It leaves out all the pain. The terror. The rage. Even the hope.”

The Chairman gestures to the picture. “This is more useful to me than any mere words written about that time could ever be. The British were… wholly unprepared for what would happen. None of us were ready, but it fell on them hardest in that first month. On that first day. All this time gone by, and I still can’t find words for it. It cut deep, and they bled freely, and the scar that came after was ugly. But one hundred years later, there is this. Life bursting forth from the scar. Someone with no knowledge of the war at all would hardly know there had been such a thing.”

Jason turns. The Chairman is staring directly at him. His eyes are hidden, but Jason can feel them, feel the strength and determination in that gaze.

“We are going to scar this world, Mr. Kline. Once it begins, there will be no going back, and when our work is complete the wounds we leave behind will be deep. But there will still be life. The scars will be deep, but life will run deeper. We will persist.”