The doctor leans back in her chair. The light from her window is gone. David and Sarah would be sitting alone at the table with dinner about now. She pushes her wheeled chair back and rests her head on her desk.
She quickly checks herself, looking up at the glass wall of her office that faces the hall. She’s almost certain the shades are drawn, but has to make sure. Having worked in the National Security apparatus, specifically in Special Access programs, most of her life, she knows the importance of appearing unflappable in front of staff. She can’t let anyone on the team see her looking weak. She certainly can’t let anyone see her looking like she’s about to cry. Not that she was. But that’s what it might look like. Especially given that she’s a woman, which matters far more than it should in this male-dominated sector.
She plays back in her mind when the director first assigned her. She spoke candidly, telling him what she thought about the project. Her opinion has scarcely changed in twenty-two years. Those in the broader NSA who have clearance enough to know say the same thing, even when they don’t say it. She can see it in their faces at the cocktail parties, the dinners, and the interdepartmental meetings. They humor her. Despite its foundation in peer-reviewed physics first uncovered by scientists at Menlo Park, the division was viewed as highly speculative, and that was putting it generously. To many, it was frivolous, lucky to be funded at all. And with only a ragtag group of four children now, the first recruits in more than two decades, no one could reasonably expect much from it.
Many believe the project’s entire existence is based on a foundation of hot air, on wild dreams of military power that no one, from SRI to the NSA, has yet been able to unlock. The Army and the CIA’s investigations into paranormal and psychic activity over the years showed nothing but a possibility of certain types of intelligences having an increased proclivity to conceivably one day developing some unknown measure of enhanced skill.
This tenuous rationale is not exactly something to inspire confidence, let alone build a career on. But she did it.
Beyond that, there are the rumors of such skills developed elsewhere—the whisper of rumors, really. Even in her years of hands-on experience, she’s only seen one recruit with potential, but scarcely enough data to document a single psychic event. And that was a long time ago. If it hadn’t ended so badly, he’d most likely still be alive today. All they have now are third-hand field reports of a former recruit lost in the desert. They’re fighting an arms race with a phantom.
She learned so much from him. His work took them in new directions, lead to major systems refinements. Over the lean years these refinements lead to an overhaul of the tests, and finally bore fruit with the surge in recruits this year, just when the project was in what many thought were its final throes, perilously close to the chopping block.
And now a bizarre murder-suicide of two field agents. Then, right on top of that, a mysterious explosion that could have killed the children.
She takes off a shoe and rubs her foot under her stocking. She’s been on her feet since before dawn, too much of the day spent demonstrating how unflappable she is.
These incidents could cast doubt on her leadership, at least, within the rumor mill. If they prove to have been caused by something random, like poor maintenance, or a lovers’ quarrel, her station as the resident laughing stock of the civil service will move a notch or two down even further, which is difficult when you’re already on a subterranean rung.
The thought gives her a dull pain behind her eyes that she can’t massage away.
On the other hand, if evidence of sabotage is uncovered, the project will be buttressed. The higher-ups will finally take her efforts seriously, finally give her the respect, and the commensurate budget, she deserves. She’ll broaden her political influence beyond just the one patron in the Senate.
A sharp knock on the door jars her back to reality. She sits up. “Come in.”
Lieutenant Dickerson enters, his long fingers wiggling anxiously. The doctor readies herself for his news. She treasures him as one of her best, but tries not to anticipate anything actionable, or any good news at all.
“Some very interesting findings,” he says. “Just sent them to you, but wanted to walk you through them. Can you bring them up?” He leans over the front of her desk.
She opens the secure message, bringing Dickerson’s files onscreen.
“That first one is from the damage assessment. We believe there was a gas explosion in the dorm kitchen above the rec room.”
“As suspected,” she says plainly. Nonetheless, she scans the report summary.
“There’s more. We found the gas main had been unscrewed from the line.”
“Could one of the children have messed with it?”
“Their fingerprints weren’t on it.”
“Well, whose were?”
“Go to the next file.”
She scrolls to the next. What she sees gives her a chill: in the mass of debris, a body, too mangled, burned, and covered in dust to recognize immediately.
“Could this be Sabine’s ‘bad man’?”
“That was our initial hunch. The report from her questioning was the only clue we had as to the involvement of a bad actor.”
He reaches across her to advance to the next file. It’s the scan of an ID badge. A middle-aged Latino woman.
“Imelda Veloz. Housekeeping staff. Six years. Exemplary service. No police file. Not even any disciplinaries.”
The doctor looks at the woman’s unassuming photo.
“None that we can find.”
“Keep looking. There’s got to be something. Someone got to her.”
“Oh, we kept looking. And we found something.”
He half-sits on the desk and flips ahead to the next file, a video. “This is the exterior security-camera footage at the time of the explosion.” The doctor watches as a digitized car moves silently down the dark street, and then a flash of white.
“Did you see that?”
“I saw the explosion. Play it back.”
Dickerson walks around to the doctor’s side of the desk and rewinds the video to just after the blast, and then rewinds it one frame at a time. It shows a few pieces of burning debris slowly rise up into the explosion, joining the flash. Dickerson pauses on the brightest frame.
“See it?” he asks, pointing to the left side of the screen, at a tree illuminated by the explosion.
The doctor looks closely. “A man.”
“It gets better.” He rewinds the video further, to a passing car, minutes before the explosion. It’s dark, but the car’s headlights reveal movement behind the tree. Although relatively small onscreen, the doctor can easily make out the figure walking from behind the tree, and then standing, appearing to be looking up at the dorm’s second floor.
“How long is he there prior to the blast?”
“Long enough. Precisely coinciding with Veloz’s releasing the gas and planting the other explosive, something homemade, with the microwave. Soldier-of-fortune stuff.”
The doctor tries to make sense of her good fortune. “Play it back, forward, half speed.”
Dickerson advances forward frame by frame to the point of the explosion.
“Does he have detonator? A cell phone?”
“No. You can see in this frame, right here.” He pauses on one of the bright frames. “He’s got nothing.” He plays the video forward, up to the flash, and then pauses it.
“My dear god,” the doctor says, taking off her glasses.
“You noticed that too, huh? He’s taking cover. In advance.”
The doctor looks closely at the still image.
“That’s our best frame: 9286. That’s the one we’ve been working with.”
“You know I wouldn’t come in here empty handed,” he says with a devious smile.
“Dickerson, you’re an extremely competent analyst, but next time, don’t bury the lede.”
“This is going to make your day, Ma’am.” He takes control of the keyboard, logs into their internal database, and then brings up a dossier.
“Nurlan Uulu Kasym. Kyrgyzstani. I believe you once knew him. He was reported to have escaped from a maximum security Kyrgyz prison, where he was being held under a directive of our own black-site program.”
“We thought he’d been killed,” the doctor whispers gravely. She snaps away from the screen and points at Dickerson. “Get this uploaded to everyone in the Intel community, Terrorist Watch List, TV, local post offices, everything. This man is extremely dangerous.”
“We’re plowing through the red tape now. It’ll be wide by morning.”
“Good work, Dickerson.”
Dickerson nods curtly, lightly taps his fists on the doctor’s desk, and then hastily walks out.
The doctor stares deeply into Kasym’s dark, pixelated eyes—the eyes of a phantom.