"I'm not saying we don't believe you. I'm saying that while one rogue individual might have instigated a few recent incidents of terrorism, this is not sufficient cause to modify in any way our present posture with regard to terrorist threats."
Hamilton Dean, the President's National Security Adviser, was explaining to me why the government wasn't going to admit that they'd been tricked into blaming the recent nuclear emergency on foreign terrorists when the whole thing had actually been orchestrated by one metahuman. I assumed that the forbearance he displayed and his placating manner were mainly due to the fact that I had a reputation for having a short fuse and everyone present at the debriefing was aware of the amount of destruction I could cause when someone pissed me off.
A widespread rumor to the effect that I had sunk a Navy warship because her Captain insulted me was utterly bogus. I hadn't done very much to quash the rumor for several reasons and now even people who knew the truth – and that certainly included Dean – found the rumor more appealing. I doubted it was for the entertainment value alone. I thought Dean might be deliberately building up my reputation because he was looking for some way to use me to his advantage. He hadn't found it yet and I was going out of my way to convince him that I was too savvy to allow myself to get sucked into whatever plan he might be considering. His attitude when rejecting my suggestion seemed positively conciliatory
"You think the whole Apocalypse angle is so weird that it taints the plausibility of the threat," I said, not making it a question. "You think this makes it a hard sell to the oversight committee."
"Miss Draco, your perspicacity and astute insight continue to astound me."
Translation: 'That's about the size of it.'
I hardly expected the government to change the way they approached terrorism on my word alone, certainly not without some kind of corroborating evidence. The problem was, discounting Neeka as an equally-questionable second-hand witness, we had nothing to show that The Horseman even existed. Our lone surviving captive was basically a terrorist-temp who hadn't rated any face-time with his employer. I didn't know whether to attribute that to paranoia or simply the smart strategy of compartmentalization within the organization.
I looked around. Our boss, David Solomon, was present, as he would be for a regular debriefing. In addition to Dean, we were also graced by the presence of Secretary of Homeland Security, Archibald Collinsworth. Archie looked uncomfortable, like he thought I might appeal to him for help convincing Dean that there was someone manipulating the people who were the 'official' threat. I couldn't do that to him. Trading on our brief encounter on this very table would have been rude, and probably wouldn't have helped my case anyway. Dean wasn't making decisions based on anything to do with the reality of the situation, only the politics of it.
I looked at Solomon, who by rights should have been the one making this case, but was also smart enough to have recognized the futility of it and instead let me shoot my mouth off. Solomon stared back, trapped into silence by the presence of his boss. I could hardly expect him to go over Archie's head, especially not with Archie sitting beside him. No help there. At least he wasn't giving me a 'shut the hell up' look.
Seeing that I was all alone and not going to succeed in altering governmental priorities, I changed tactics.
"All right," I said in my best reasonable tone, "In the interest of keeping all options open, may we be allowed the leeway to pursue this independently of official policy?"
"I am certainly not going to tell you not to do something that I strongly suspect you will do anyway," Dean said, smiling with most of his teeth showing. "I'm not telling you to do or not do anything at all. I am simply stating the political reality of the situation."
A marvelously-phrased way of saying, "I can't be blamed for whatever happens." At least it wasn't an outright 'no'.
"I understand your position. I just want you to be aware that this is a very scary individual."
"Dean chuckled, "Scarier than you?"
"He scares me. He's smart, fast, strong, ruthless, and consumed by hate. The only thing that makes that combination worse is that he managed to get his hands on at least two nuclear weapons."
"What evidence do we have that he was behind the attempt on Fort Meade?" Archie asked. Now that we'd got past the political angle, he was prepared to participate. I think I was the only naive one in the room.
"Nothing direct," Solomon responded. "But someone gave al-Mahdi that device. Someone who suggested how it should be used. That kind of stage-management shows in what we know about the Elkton incident."
"If he wants to stay in the background, why was he there in person?" Archie asked.
"Ego," I said. "He's a cold fish, but he still has an ego. He wanted to be there to oversee the final stage of his plan. He wanted to enjoy seeing it come together."
"But you don't think he planned to blow himself up?" Dean asked.
"He had a chance to do that, and take us with him" I admitted with regret. "He chose to escape instead. I think he wants to be around to gloat over the destruction he causes. He's deadly serious about this Apocalypse thing, but he expects to be around to witness it. As controlled as he is on the outside, he's intensely emotionally-involved on the inside. He not only wants to make it happen, he wants to see it happen. He's like an arsonist who sticks around to watch the flames and hear the screams and know that he did that."
"Then," Dean said, standing and looking around at everyone, "I suggest you find him before he can try again. But do it discretely. I recognize that your suggestion was well-intentioned, but we can't afford to go public with this. The repercussions would be unthinkable." Then he and Archie left. Solomon walked them to the door, but came back after a few words with Archie.
I think Dean and I had different ideas of what those repercussions might be, but agreeing to disagree was as far as I was going to get with him on that. I was actually glad he seemed to believe me about The Horseman even existing. I was, after all, the only one who had seen the guy.
When it was just us again in the meeting room, the atmosphere seemed somehow cleaner. I rather liked Archie, but Hamilton Dean and I were never going to be BFFs. A case of incompatible values.
"Congratulations," Solomon said to me.
"What? Why? He's more concerned about maintaining the political status quo than dealing with the threat."
"It is that status quo that provides the budget for this team. We are here because those in power believe there are dangers out there to be dealt with. It could easily be otherwise."
That sent a chill down my spine. History is full of cases of people in power deluding themselves about the reality of threats that should have been obvious to anyone. Or leveraging the danger to their political advantage rather than trying to eliminate it, something I strongly suspected happened all too often in the circles of power.
"I meant you succeeded in alarming him," Solomon continued, "He knows enough about you to know you can be intimidating. When you told him this new threat scared you, it made him wonder how scary that would have to be. Now, instead of ignoring it, he'll report to his boss that you consider this Horseman to be a real danger. That will influence the President's thinking on the matter. We can only hope that influence operates in our favor. He could very well decide that all metas are threats."
"Has anyone ever pointed out what a pessimist you are?"
"I'm a realist. I try to confine my battles not just to those I know I can win, but those where I have control over the consequences of winning."
"And I just like pushing dominoes to watch them fall?"
"Since you like analogies, try this one - Shouting 'fire' in a crowded theater may seem like a good idea when you first see the flames, but it rarely achieves an optimal result."
"If you frighten people, they might act against their own best interests?"
"Exactly. The best approach is to focus on the threat and try to deal with it without inciting a riot. That's why this team exists, after all. Sigma Seven is the silent and unsung fireman who snuffs out the flame before it can become a conflagration."
"That's something I've wondered about. What does Sigma Seven mean?"
"Nothing momentous. My first office was room seven in the Pentagon sub-basement. S-7 became Sigma Seven."
"Oh." I wished I hadn't asked. The mystery was more appealing than the truth.
"Getting back to a more productive discussion – your description of The Horseman is that he is well-built, tall, and Black. Is that all you remember?"
"Not Black black, not Negroid. Just coal-black. Not a normal skin-color. I couldn't see him at all until he moved, then I was barely able to make him out against the interior of the foundry."
"Why? Was he wearing black clothes as well?"
I hadn't mentioned the part about him being naked and I hadn't planned to. That might lead to other questions I wouldn't want to answer either. Now I had to either fess-up or lie. Either one might damage my credibility.
"No. No clothes at all. That's how I knew he didn't have the detonator – no pockets."
"Right," Solomon said, and went silent.
"Look, it shocked me too! That may have been part of why he did it. Or for the camo-effect. Or it may have been just to mess with people. To show he doesn't care what we think of him."
.... There is more of this story ...