Taking all the dissatisfying aspects of his job into account, debriefs tended to be the nadir for Wynton Simons. It wasn't the concept of debriefs so much as the person he was debriefing. Abraham Holt was a universal force, much like gravity. There was no explaining him, you just knew he was there and could see the consequences of his actions all around.
On the plus side, there were those moments before the colleague arrived, when Wynton was alone in the meeting room. He sipped at his coffee, holding it with both hands and resting his elbows on the table. It was all sun and fluffy clouds outside, the window offering a view across the hills to the towering Aviary facsimile, looking like a twisted, over-sized Eiffel Tower. The only sound came from the air conditioning vent in the corner of the room. If only this moment could last through to the end of the day, he'd sit there nursing the coffee until he simply got up, walked out and drove home.
The door opened and Holt entered without knocking. He walked straight over to the window and looked up at the frame of the Aviary, saying nothing. Wynton reluctantly placed his coffee back on a coaster and pulled up Holt's report, along with local newspaper cuttings sourced from Locque. It made for depressing reading.
"So," Wynton said slowly, "that was messy."
Still with his back to him, Holt removed his coat, held it in one hand for a second, then turned and dropped it over the back of one of the chairs. He then sat down on another chair with what Wynton could only describe as a flourish. They locked eyes but Holt still said nothing.
"I'm just going to skip straight to the end," Wynton said. "Eighteen Aviary guards. How's that make you feel?"
Holt snorted. "Make me feel? What is this, a counselling session?"
"That was a trick question," Wynton said, not smiling. "What I actually want to know is why you think you still have a job here."
That got his attention. Holt's jaw worked left and right and he sat back in the chair, shifting his arms from the table to folded across his chest. "If you've got someone else that can do what I do, go right ahead, Simons."
"Mm," Wynton said. "Way I see it, even you can't do what you do. Not anymore."
"Come on, Simons," Holt said impatiently, "intel came in way too late, you know that. If you'd got me on-site an hour earlier I could have prevented the whole thing."
Wynton glanced down at the tablet. There was a headline from the Perlyn Chronicle, depicting a terrorist massacre at the heart of government. The article itself was a list of names of those killed. The photo showed what looked like school photos of the perpetrators.
"You know that wasn't possible. We didn't know he had accomplices."
"Sure," Holt said, leaning in. "But seems to me, if you want to pin this on anyone, you should look to your own department first. Besides, this is all besides the point. It was covered up just fine. Those two idiot teenagers gave us all the cover we could want."
Wynton brought up a secondary report, culled from Locque citizen records. "Kaysaleen Rodata and Marvin Thermivore. No previous. Squeaky clean. No terrorist associations. It's not ideal story material."
"That's clean-up's problem, not mine. What this does do is confirm some of our suspicions about patient zero's coercion abilities."
"Let's not stray from the subject," Wynton interjected. "This is about you, not him."
Holt laughed. "Come on," he said, "what do you want me to say so we can get this wrapped up and go to lunch? You want me to say how I'm super-sad and terribly sorry?"
"That might be a good place to start."
"I'm super-sad," Holt said, his face entirely deadpan. "I'm also terribly sorry."
"Right," Wynton said, "but none of that brings back over a dozen Locque citizens. The ones you vaporised."
He actually shrugged. "They were in my way."
"You killed eighteen innocent people and still let patient zero escape. You failed on every angle."
Holt got to his feet abruptly, knocking his chair back. "We manipulate these 'people' every day, Simons. Have done for centuries. What happens on their ridiculous planet is down to our design. That is what we do here. Or did you forget?"
"We don't just kill—"
"Yes, we do." Holt threw his arms up. "We tinker! We get in there, and fiddle around, and do whatever the hell we want with their lives. Oh, hey, maybe it'd be fun to try out some reptilian genotypes. Or, hey, why don't we forcibly introduce American 1950s diner culture just for shits and giggles? They live and die according to our whims. So don't judge me. Don't even think about it."
Wynton thought about jumping to his feet but then figured he'd missed the moment and would only look foolish. That left him sitting in the chair with Holt towering above, which felt even more awkward. He was acutely aware that Holt was waiting for a response.
"They're not just toys for us to play with, Holt."
"No," Holt said, "they're lab rats. If you don't get that, then you're the one that shouldn't be working here."
Holt had a habit of turning situations around. That was why he was usually so good at his job. It was also why Wynton hated going up against him, even just verbally. "The diner thing was a one-off," Wynton said uselessly.
"It being the office Christmas party doesn't absolve us of responsibility," Holt said, not without some venom. "What I do, I take responsibility for it. I know what I'm doing. I know where I stand. I don't give a damn, but I'm not a hypocrite."
Wynton turned the tablet off and pushed it away to one side.
"Look, here's how it works," he said. "Currently we don't know where the hell patient zero is, or his accomplices. For all we know we might never see them again. But if they reappear on Locque you have to be ready to go get them. Until then, management is suggesting you take some leave."
"No," Holt said, shaking his head, "leave is the last thing I need. And you're still not understanding the situation."
It wasn't even worth letting out a sigh. "Do enlighten me."
Holt moved over to the window and stared up at the mock Aviary. "Once he touched the diviner he made a dimension jump. And then he came back. That means he can control it. If he can control it, he can come here. To Earth."
"What are you saying?"
"I'm saying," said Holt, enunciating clearly, as if to a child, "that we've bred a super rat, and he's escaped from his cage."
As the rest of the day dragged by, Holt's words rang in Wynton's head. As he got in his car and made the drive home he couldn't stop the thought running around and around. As he hugged his wife and kissed his baby son, the knowledge distracted him. Locque wasn't just the job any more. It wasn't just a distant, theoretical experiment that he could forget about at five-thirty each afternoon.
The rats were loose.
Thanks for reading! Please do vote or leave a comment to let me know what you thought. Chapter notes can be found on my blog: https://simonkjones.com/tag/a-day-of-faces/
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A Day of Faces (complete novel)Science Fiction
A coming-of-age story about a snake girl called Kay and her shape-shifting friend who accidentally uncover a conspiracy and wind up changing the world. ***** Kay is a sarcastic, ordinary high school girl who enjoys her weekends and doesn't think muc...