Part One: Jacob K. Javits Federal Building
The New York offices of the Federal Bureau of Metahuman Affairs take up four floors of the Jacob K. Javits Federal Building in the Civic Center district of Manhattan. Peter Raphael Travers’ office is on the 28th floor—the lowest of the four—and it’s small compared to most of the others. Technically he should have moved up to a much larger office in the Department of Homeland Security floors a decade ago, but so much of his work is with the FBMA it didn’t make sense to move him out of his old space. Travers doesn’t mind. Once upon a time, before computers were standard business equipment, the office might have been a little cramped. Now it’s more than adequate: large enough for his desk, his chair, two guest chairs, and a file cabinet with an old coffee maker sitting on top of it.
Travers leans back in his chair, sipping his coffee while he stares at the monitor, and frowns as he considers the report on display. It’s going to be a rough week.
His desk phone rings. It’s Sally, the unit receptionist.
“Agent Travers, Agent Henry is here to see you. With… others.” Sally sounds nervous.
Travers raises an eyebrow. “Send him in.”
He opens the bottom drawer of his desk and pulls out a small vial of liquid, which he quickly opens and pours into his coffee. He’s topping off his mug when the door to his office opens, and Agent Phillip Henry, leader of Division M, steps into the room looking pissed.
“Hello Phillip,” Travers says. “Coffee? Fresh pot.”
Agent Henry is a tall, thin, dark-skinned man, younger than Travers but possessed of an existential weariness that makes him seem older than he is. He’s dressed in an expensive black suit, white shirt, and black tie. He’s wearing black sunglasses. Travers finds the ensemble ridiculous—he looks like a stereotype brought to life—but he forces himself not to smile. It’s not actually Henry’s fault. It’s the sunglasses that do it, and he wears them because he’s courteous.
Agent Henry steps into the room without saying anything. He’s followed by two more agents, a man and a woman, both wearing dark suits. Travers notices they’re armed. Henry isn’t, but that’s irrelevant.
Travers looks at the three of them, sits down in his chair, takes another sip of coffee, and sighs. “Close the door.”
Agent Henry nods curtly. The man to his left turns and closes the door. The woman to his right just stares at Travers. She’s tense—not frightened, but on guard.
Travers looks from her, to Agent Henry, to the man returning to Henry’s left, then back to Agent Henry. “What’s this about, Phillip?”
Agent Henry hesitates. “I have orders to bring you in.”
“Are you arresting me?” Travers asks, keeping his voice mild.
“No.” Agent Henry shifts uncomfortably.
“Well,” Travers says, “we’re currently in the New York office of the Federal Bureau of Metahuman Affairs. I’m already ‘in.’ We could go up five floors to the DHS offices if you like, but I don’t see how—”
“David Bernard,” Agent Henry interrupts. “What is your involvement with him?”
Travers shrugs and takes a long drink of coffee, wincing slightly at the bitter, metallic taste. “When he was Sky Commando I worked with him a great deal. A few days ago he very heroically involved himself in an incident that would have caused the deaths of a great many civilians if he had not, injuring himself in the process. Yesterday I visited him in the hospital, told him he’d been put under surveillance by his own government, gave him a newspaper and a USB thumb drive full of useful information, and wished him well.”
As a general rule of thumb it’s useless to lie to Agent Henry, and Travers doesn’t bother to try. Henry’s reaction is priceless: his mouth goes slack and hangs open as he rocks back in stunned silence. The woman to his right blinks in surprise, and the man to his left looks at the others as if to say, “Did he really just say that?”
Travers takes another sip as he turns his monitor around so they can see the report. “Strange world we live in. This kid literally sacrificed his body when he was on the job, then selflessly put himself in danger again when he stumbled into a situation that he was able to tie back to Liberty’s assassination… and our first response is to invoke the Patriot Act to search his house and put him under warrantless surveillance.”
Agent Henry recovers from his surprise. “I’m not at liberty to—”
“Agent Henry,” Travers says, voice soft, “shut up.”
Agent Henry falls silent.
“At least we didn’t classify him as a terrorist,” Travers continues. “That would be beyond insulting. But Title XI can only be invoked when dealing with a metahuman threat. Bernard no longer has access to the technology that would qualify him as a metahuman under Section 1125. He doesn’t wear the suit any more, Phillip, and you’re thorough enough to have known that before issuing your orders.”
“You don’t know everything,” Agent Henry says.
Travers waits expectantly.
Agent Henry shakes his head. “Not going to happen. But what you did—”
“Was in direct violation of DHS and FBMA protocol,” Travers cuts in agreeably. “And, I’m quite certain, a violation of my oath as a Federal officer and of at least three laws. Oh, and I’m pretty sure it was in violation of my security clearance as well. I’ve been a naughty boy.” He swigs down the last of his coffee and sets the empty mug on his desk.
Agent Henry grits his teeth. “What you did was aid and abet a suspect in a criminal investigation. We know a lot more about him than you do—”
“No you don’t,” Travers says. “You invented a lot more about him, I’m sure. But it’s a pack of lies. I’ll do you the courtesy of believing that you genuinely believe it’s necessary for the public good, but in order for me to do that it also means I have to believe that you’re an idiot. I’ll do you another courtesy and hope that it’s a temporary condition.”
“I don’t have time for this,” Agent Henry says, almost growling the words. “Agent Collins, please restrain—”
Travers’ foot kicks the back of his desk hard enough to crack the faux veneer, depressing the hidden trigger with a loud click. Instantly the three fire sprinklers in the room go off, spraying everyone and everything in it. It’s funny how nobody ever commented on them—nobody in his right mind would put three fire sprinklers in an office that small. Most people don’t notice things like that, and the few who do tend to think nothing of it.
Travers faceplants onto his desk as soon as he’s hit with the spray, but he had his coffee. A moment later he stands up, weaving unsteadily, and looks at the three agents collapsed on the floor in front of him. He looks at his door warily. Still closed, nobody coming in. The trigger locked it as well as deploying the neurotoxin, so he has some time.
“Don’t worry,” Travers says, voice quavering slightly from the effort. “It’s non-lethal. I try very hard not to kill. You should regain the ability to move and speak in an hour, I think.”
He arranges each agent out on the floor so they’re resting a little more comfortably. It’s a tight space, so it’s not ideal, but it’s better than the positions they were in before. When he’s finished he kneels over Agent Henry and removes his sunglasses.
“Look at me,” Travers says.
Agent Henry can move his eyes, but they’re not tracking very well. Travers slaps his face, very lightly, and moves his index finger around in front of it until the eyes focus.
“Look at me,” he says again.
Agent Henry looks at him. A moment later, Travers feels the compulsion lock in.
Agent Henry is a metahuman. At a very basic level, he can tell whenever anyone is lying to him, or is telling him the truth, but whenever he makes eye contact, the subject is compelled to tell the truth—the entire, unvarnished, often painful truth. He can’t control it, which is why he wears sunglasses.
“I don’t know where you stand in this,” Travers says simply. “I’ve always considered you a decent man, but if you’re as deep into this as you appear to be, then you’re either an accomplice or someone giving you orders has figured out how to lie to you and get away with it. I’m going to hope it’s the latter. I hate being wrong about people…”
He sees Agent Henry’s brow furrow slightly. That’s all he can do.
“That said,” Travers continues, “I have been wrong before, and I expect I will be again. So whether you’re a traitor or a dupe, listen to me very carefully.”
Agent Henry watches him.
“I am not a traitor,” Travers says. “Everything I did for David, and everything I’m doing now, is in service of my country. It also, I might add, lines up perfectly with the scope of my responsibilities and the purpose of my department, though the lengths I find myself going to in order to meet those responsibilities probably qualify as above and beyond the call. That’s not me bragging, Agent Henry, that’s me complaining. I have spent my life doing whatever I can do to protect my country from her enemies. You know that pledge? ‘External or within?’ Well lately they haven’t been external, and that makes me very, very angry.”
Agent Henry’s eyes widen just a fraction. Travers is telling him the truth—at least, the truth as he understands it. He can’t do anything else.
Travers places the sunglasses back over Agent Henry’s eyes and coughs apologetically. “I’m going to leave now. I won’t be exiting through the front door, because you might have other agents placed out there. I’m… actually glad you can’t see how I’m going to leave. Not because I want to keep anything from you, just because while it would look spectacularly dashing if someone like Curveball were trying this, it’s going to look awkward and painful when I do it.”
He sighs, goes over to his filing cabinet, and opens the bottom drawer. He pulls the harness out from the back and steps into it as quickly as he can manage.
He pulls up the blinds and starts working on the window. It takes five minutes for Travers to pry it open, and by the end of it he’s gasping and sweating profusely. It’s not supposed to open, of course. It took him an entire weekend to switch the old one out and the new one in. He almost fell to his death in the process, and it’s now clear he didn’t exactly do it right. Finally the window swings open like a miniature glass door, and a warm breeze blows into the room. The sounds of traffic going across Duane Street can be heard faintly, twenty-eight stories below.
He opens the bottom drawer of his desk again and pulls out the zip line. He hums softly to himself as he sets the base of it up against the base of the window and fastens it firmly in place with the attached tool. When it finally locks in to the bottom sill, the firing mechanism is pointed exactly where it’s supposed to be—just above a ledge running around the Ted Weiss Federal Building. He checks again—just to make sure—then fires. The zip line streaks across the distance, burying itself in the stone, right on target.
He clips the safety harness onto the zip line, then awkwardly heaves himself over the window. He looks down, regrets it, then sets his jaw.
“Yeah,” he mutters, “definitely a rough week.” He jumps.
For a brief moment he’s falling, terrified. A moment later the safety harness jerks sharply, and the next thing he knows he’s sliding down the line, across the street, toward the other building, terrified. It feels like it’s taking much too long, while at the same time he’s certain he’s traveling much too fast. He hits the far wall much harder than he expected; he feels his right knee pop as he tries to cushion his impact with his legs. Muscles tear and burn, and he topples sideways as his right leg gives, hitting the wall with his hip, then his shoulder, and then his face.
Travers hasn’t been a field agent for a very long time. He hurts, he’s bleeding, his head is throbbing, and his ears are ringing. He dangles from the zip line for a moment, reeling from the shock of the impact, then adrenaline and will force him to find his feet, open his eyes, and take stock of his situation.
He’s on the ledge.
He looks down. A few people have gathered on the sidewalk, staring up and pointing.
He reaches up to unhook his harness from the zip line and feels a sharp pain in his right shoulder. He grunts, fumbles with the release one-handed, and almost falls backward when it finally disconnects. He curses, steadies himself, then steps to his left until he stands in front of a full-sized window made of safety glass. With his left hand he reaches up to a small indentation in the stone next to the window, then pushes hard.
The window clicks, then opens smoothly inward.
Travers looks back down, weaving unsteadily. More people have gathered on the sidewalk.
He grins, waves once, steps through the open window, and disappears.