Julie still felt weird wearing a suit.
Her sister had helped her pick it out. A smart 'business' style suit with black blazer and knee-length skirt, white shirt underneath. Simple and elegant, with a fit that announced she was female without making a spectacle of it. Wearing it, Julie felt as if she was demanding a kind of authority she had yet to earn. She was just out of freaking high school for God's sake. What gave her the right to wear this?
Jennifer had already called Julie on her 'imposter syndrome.' Jen loved waving her psyche degree around, even if that hadn't been what got her into the CIA. No one ever feels like they earn what they get at first, she'd explained. It was normal. You'll get over it.
Julie hoped that would come soon. She felt incredibly conspicuous as she strolled across the tiled floors of the lobby on the Baxter Building. Everyone seemed to be watching her go, nodding to themselves and thinking 'Yep, definitely a spy, that one. I can tell by the suit.'
You got this, Jules. If you lived through the interviews and background checks, you can live through a briefing.
In the elevator she pressed the button for the 13th floor, twice in rapid succession, then three times with a longer delay between each press. For a dry-mouthed moment, nothing happened. Then there was a sharp metallic clank, and the elevator started moving. Down.
She wanted to lean against the wall in relief, but knowing there were cameras watching inhibited. Of course, she could do her thing...erase herself from the camera's eyes...but that felt like kind of an antagonistic thing to do on her first big case.
The elevator came to a halt and the doors opened. Julie wasn't sure what she'd been expecting...some kind of sleek, futuristic thing of bright lights and bland white panels like a hospital maybe. But no, the walls were bare concrete, the lights were long florescent strips that buzzed in low frequencies on the edge of hearing. Two armed guards watched her narrowly as she stepped out.
"Kestrel," she said with a confidence she didn't entirely feel, "Two oh four oh three two one."
One of the guards looked at the tablet he was holding and nodded. "Left hall, room eight."
Julie nodded and went past the guards on the left side. She could hear sounds from ahead...keyboards being tapped, the low murmur of conversations being conducted in hushed tones. Some guy in shirtsleeves was at a copier. He glanced around at her, nodded and looked back at the paper reeling out from the machine. He looked to be in his mid-forties. There weren't many youngsters like her in Padlock. Not yet.
Room eight was just past the copier, on the left. It looked more like an interrogation room than a briefing room. A table and three chairs, two of which had people in them. Doctor Brant, who had been one of her interviewers, and...Jesus. Who was that? Sitting at the table was an intense looking man who wore a perpetual “I am tired as fuck” look. He projected scary and...power and not the KEY kins.
She paused where she stood, eyes widening. What was the protocol again? Salute? Curtsy? Shit!
"Agent Kestrel," the man said in a surprisingly pleasant voice. He gestured at the empty seat and smiled a surprisingly nice smile. "Have a seat. We haven't met before, I am Mr. Phelps and I have the privileged of running things here. You work for me.”
"Mr. Phelps, I...wasn't expecting to be briefed by..." she searched her memory for any recollection of who the Boss was or what his title might be with no result. “by the Director?” She sat down. Her eyes flicked to Doctor Brant, who's expression was pensive.
Phelps looked at her his smile gone. "Just Mr Phelps. Normally I wouldn't. In this case though...we have a situation uniquely suited to your talents. The operation we'd planned to assign you is being routed to another agent. What you're about to be told is not to be discussed with anyone, including in the initiative, not in this room right now. No one"
Holy shit. This is happening.
Doctor Brant produced a manila folder and pushed it over the table at Julie. She opened it. Inside was a map, some documents, and a dossier. She didn't focus on it immediately though, listening instead as Mr Phelps spoke.
"You're going to Shelly, Montana," he said. "The belly of the beast."
A chill ran down Julie's spine. "That's where they live."
"Which is why you're the only one we can send. We've obtained fresh reliable intel, that one of the 'irregulars,' has suffered a complete remission."
Julie found herself staring blankly and quickly forced herself to look at something, anything. The dossier in the file. "That's not... I don't understand. When you say 'remission...'"
"Reversion to baseline human status," Phelps pressed on. His face had become stern, his eyes were grey and unflinching. He reminded her of her father...or how her father might have become, if he'd lived long enough. "Chimera is no more."
"How is that possible?"
"That's what we need you to find out." He gestured at the file. "Those documents establish you as a military researcher at Shelly AFB. They're a rush job, so try not to lean on them too hard. They'll pass most civilian muster, but if the base does a real investigation they will blow your cover. You have two objectives. The first is gain access to any research they already have on the phenomena, the second is to interview Chimera and take some biometrics with one of the toys Rand's come up with...most likely posing as legitimate research, but I'll leave the 'how' of all this up to you. Be as discreet as possible. The ideal outcome is they never know anyone but them sees this. Top priority is getting the data though."
The implications already had Julie's head spinning. There might be a cure. Still. "What about them? The Irregulars."
"Avoid contact with any of them but Chimera. You may be a hot-shit key, but they're on another level. If contact is unavoidable, stick to your story and disengage as fast as possible. You're not expendable, so trust your instincts. Abort if you have to. You'll have to re-establish contact with us after this op, by the way. Due to possible contact with the telepath. It's a pain, but necessary for preserving security. All information you've been given thus far will be considered potentially compromised."
She nodded, pushing the documents back into the folder. "Out of curiosity, is this all going to self-destruct or anything? Why the paperwork?"
Phelps looked at her with no expression. Dr Brant replied, "Electronic security has been...an issue. At the moment, paper documentation is considered more secure than digital. Rest assured that these are accompanied by the necessary changes to relevant, uh, databases and so on. We do insist however that no information from or about the Padlock Initiative be reproduced on anything that has wired or wireless connectivity. That will all be in the orientation which, uh..." he glanced at his watch.
"If there's no questions, get moving," Mr Phelps grumped. "Get oriented, then get changed and get on your flight. Tickets are in the file. On this assignment you report directly to me. By the time you're done, we'll have a handler set up for you."
Julie got to her feet and before she knew what she was saying, said, "Yes sir." She wasn't military, and Padlock wasn't military...Phelps just had a certain way of speaking that made it seem like an appropriate response.
As she was opening the door, he said, "Oh, Agent, one other thing."
She paused and looked back.
Phelps grinned. "Nice suit."
On the plane to Montana, Julie went over the files. They didn't self-destruct, but there were instructions on the minimum measures necessary to dispose of them when she was finished. There had been a time, not even very long ago, when memorizing the documents would have been impossible for her. Now she only had to graze them once before she could imagine them in her mind's eye, exactly as they had been. She tested it several times, making sure that the memory was the same. Once she was sure, Julie locked them back up in her little briefcase.
The assignment was dividing into three different objectives in her head, ordered by expected difficulty. The first was infiltrating the air force base to see what information had been shared by Irregular Solutions. The second was the interview with Chimera. The third was to infiltrate Irregular Solutions to find out what data they'd already collected.
Of those three, the first seemed almost like a waste of time. Notes in the margins indicated that Irregular Solutions had almost entirely broken off from the military. They now employed most of the civilian scientists who'd been working on Keys before. They simply didn't need to share information. It was a bit of a stroke of luck that PI had even found out about Chimera in the first place. Old lines of communication between military and civilian staying intact...friends talking to friends after hours.
Julie thought going to the air force base would be more of a fallback position if her attempt to get to Irregular Solutions failed. A last ditch hope that maybe more had been shared.
Which meant that step one would be to interview the...ex-Key? The girl who was codenamed Chimera. Julie went over her dossier over and over, taking up the lion's share of the flight. Frustratingly, it was largely a tactical and strategic assessment. Not much time or consideration was given to the more human touches. Here were her parents, a brief paragraph summarizing her school records with a note on extracurriculars, and then three pages about her powers in exhaustive detail.
None of it mattered anymore, if the reports were right.
Back when the Padlock Initiative was still just Project Padlock, it had mostly been made of government employed scientists working in connection with the military. Those scientists were still with Padlock in what was called 'Rand,' which Julie discovered was just a corruption of 'R&D;' the department that was now dedicated to their craft. Those scientists had done what they could to analyze some of her powers, and determined that she seemed able to generate a kind of 'broad spectrum interference pattern' that they had trouble explaining the properties of. She could sort of...edit herself out of pictures, it seemed. Cameras. Photographs (while they were being taken; once she was in the photo it was too late). Even mirrors. The 'energy' or 'interference' she made should also undermine the powers of other Keys, especially powers revolving around detection.
They'd managed to do some cursory tests with a low-grade telepathic Key in custody, and it had worked just fine. That was a far cry from what she was walking into now though.
Julie focused on her power as she crossed the airport to the baggage claim. Though people could see her just fine, there'd be no trace of her on security cameras. People taking selfies and getting her in frame wouldn't see her in the image later. And...if all went to plan...the telepathic Irregular wouldn't be able to sense any anomalous thought patterns.
It was nerve-wracking.
The upward potential of the Irregulars was an unknown quantity. Since going underground and self-funding, Padlock had lost much of its effective intel-gathering potential on them...a problem only worsened when the Irregulars themselves cut official ties with the government and started their own organization. Field observations confirmed however that they had continued to grow and change...and their estimates based on those observations, along with the last reliable data they had from when everyone was part of the same military...were sobering.
It was entirely possible that she'd never feel it coming. That the telepath Abel would sense strange thoughts, focus in, and discover the truth immediately. He'd then be free to kill her, or worse...change her...sending her back with false reports, or even as an unwitting double agent. She might not even know it herself if that happened. From what she gathered, Padlock had some ways to tell if that happened, which they had for obvious reasons not shared with her.
But who really knew?
Julie forced those thoughts, and the fears they spawned, to the back of her mind, where even she could barely feel them. It was too late not to risk that. She had to focus on making sure this risk was worth it. For now she could focus on the clear, pretty Montana day it was. Even though Shelly was starting to swell a bit as Irregular Solutions grew, and the notoriety of the town grew with it, the place was still mostly a quiet, pleasant little town. Mostly.
She drove out to the house where Chimera was listed as still living with her parents...a factoid that brought a chortle to Julie when she'd read it. So easy to forget the Irregulars were still just kids. Not much older than Julie herself. Under other circumstances, they could have gone to school together. It was a weird thought to imagine being buddies with someone who could, by some estimates, destroy all human life on the planet within a week. And she wasn't even the most dangerous.
As Julie trotted up the walk, she reviewed the information from the dossier and her plan to engage. Persona, backstory, objective; the building blocks of a character. Ideally a good character. Julie really didn't want to gamble her life on the intel about Chimera having lost her powers being correct.
No, not Chimera. Kia. Kia.
She rang the doorbell.
Kia opened the door to see a young woman standing there. Pleasant looking without being intimidating, with dark eyes and dark hair done in a slicked-back ponytail, wearing a slightly rumpled suit jacket over T-shirt and jeans. The woman smiled and held a hand out, which Kia shook without really thinking about it.
"Hi, Miss Mizuki. I'm Harmony Gold, from...ah..." she patted her pocket and pulled out a little leather case which flipped open to show a badge, "...I'm a civilian scientific attache from the base. We've been working with Irregular Solutions on, ah...your situation. Can I come in?"
"Oh, hi!" replied Kia with a smile. "Sure! Please, call me Kia. What are you doing out here though? I'm going in for a full exam already today."
Harmony sighed and rolled her eyes. "I know, I know. Except you're going to Irregular Solutions, and they don't have this over there." She reached into her purse and produced a small device that looked a little like the thingy that supermarkets used to use to print price labels on. A pistol grip with a complicated little disc on top. "This is just to scan you and your house for residual energy traces. They also want me to ask you a few questions if that's ok."
Kia stared at the gizmo, impressed despite all the things she'd already seen. "Wow," she said appreciatively. "Yeah, come on in."
From behind the 'mask' of Harmony, Julie Foster, the 'Kestrel,' watched Kia carefully...and not just with her eyes. One of the most valuable abilities she had was the power to sense Keys and their powers. She and the Japanese teenager exchanged pleasantries while Julie scanned her head to foot. It was true. Chimera was no more. There wasn't even a 'residue' left. It was as if she'd never unlocked at all.
Something about that gave Julie a little chill. Could it happen again? Was Chimera still a Key, just now locked again? She didn't think she'd be able to tell, if so.
Best to avoid any stress, just to be sure.
That night in her motel room, wrapped in a terrycloth bathrobe while her hair air-dried, Julie went over her notes and recorded footage of the interview she'd had with Kia. The device Rand had given her was back in her briefcase...she had no idea how to read, or even access, what it had discovered. Based on her own senses, she suspected it hadn't discovered much.
"...I was talking with one of the new guys," Kia said, her miniature face on the screen of Julie's tablet. "Pete. He's super chill about stuff, and he could tell I was having a hard time so he just asked me to talk to him. Then he said I should talk to the spirits and tell them what I wanted."
Her smile was infectious, even in the video two hours later. "I don't believe in spirits, you know? But...it felt good to just let it all out anyway."
Julie jotted down 'New Key at Irregular Solutions: Pete - interacted with subject day before remission event' on her notepad. The tablet data would never see Padlock...they were incredibly paranoid about any kind of transfer of computer information. She'd taken the video for her own use, and it would all be deleted when she was done with it.
Kia's testimony had also been helpful in other ways. For one, she'd let Julie know that Irregular Solutions hadn't yet started its tests on her in earnest. Going and infiltrating the place now would be a lot of risk for not much reward. Abel had been up front with his girlfriend about what they'd found so far...and it hadn't been much according to Kia.
"Is everything okay?" Julie's recorded voice asked.
Kia nodded and smiled apologetically. "Abel and Sean are just taking it hard. I think this has them really scared."
"Scared? They're two of the, ah, most capable people on the planet."
"I know. They're just worried this could be made into a weapon I think." The former Key shrugged.
Julie had leaned forward, and the view of the video changed slightly. "You're not afraid of that?"
She shook her head. "No. It's like I told Abel. This was all about a choice."
The pen moved over Julie's notepad again. Kia's opinion had no scientific weight, but Julie wasn't discounting it. The girl had really, genuinely wanted to be rid of her powers. After a moment of thought, she jumped the video to the last bookmark.
"So this happened because you chose for it to?"
Kia nodded primly.
"I, ah, this isn't part of the questions I'm supposed to ask, but...why? You were Chimera. One of the most powerful beings in the world. Why did you want to give that up?"
The erstwhile Irregular considered that for a moment, then smiled ruefully. "I wasn't in the world. I was...on the world, but just standing on it. Everything felt like...a movie set? Kind of? Plastic and cardboard. Nothing real. Not to me. As long as there was a fight...against something only Chimera could fight...I could roll with it. But then the fight was over. I can be me again."
"Some would say that there's always another fight," Julie pointed out.
"Yeah, but...size matters you know? You don't need me as Chimera to deal with...riots or terrorists. That'd be like trying to shoot an apple off of someone's head with a bazooka or something." Kia hesitated, thinking. "I can't USE those powers. Not for normal things. Not around normal people. It's too much."
Julie found herself asking something that genuinely was off the cuff then. "Do you think that there might be other Keys out there that feel that way? Like their powers have a cost they don't want to pay? Do you think you could...help them? Do what you've done?"
Kia gazed at her for so long that Julie felt a stab of fear. Had she said something wrong? Was Kia onto her? But then the pretty young asian girl just said, "I don't know. All I could tell them is what Pete told me. It's not something that anyone did to me...it was between me and...whatever these powers are from."
"Whatever they're from?"
"Yeah. Like...whatever chooses what our powers are when we unlock. It's not random, you know. It's more like...like a genie, kinda. You make a wish. Only it's not as conscious. It's this really strong, emotional, instinctive choice. What do you want? So it doesn't always come out the way you might want it to consciously. And even if it does, sometimes it's complicated and has problems you don't know about until later."
Kia started to nod, then thought about it and shook her head. "Not really. My powers were fine. If I was a little different, I could have kept them and it would have been fine. But I felt like I was being pulled away from other people, and away from the world...and that's the opposite of what I wanted. But just because it wasn't what I wanted wasn't a 'problem.' It was just..." She sighed. "It's a choice I made. I decided it wasn't worth it."
Julie nodded, making the camera bob a little.
"Well...welcome back to the human race, Kia. I hope it's worth it for you."
She just smiled. "It already is."
There was something in that smile...an easy, unforced contentment...that called to Julie as she watched the video freeze at the end. She wanted to have that 'everything's cool' smile. She wanted to feel the way she'd have to feel to have that smile.