The Hollow Half – Chapter 7

“Thank you for joining me Miss Smith.” Agent Haffrun said as I walked into the room. She had a tablet computer setup to one side of her on the conference table and a pair of manilla folders open on the other.

“Can I get you anything? Juice? Water? Donuts?” she offered, gesturing me to take one of the seats opposite hers at the conference table. She seemed slightly distracted, but otherwise unruffled. This was business as usual for her.

“No that’s ok.” I answered and immediately regretted it. She’d been testing me. If I was a changeling, the Law of Hospitality would have applied. They would guarantee her safety, for a time at least. I couldn’t tell how she knew I was a metahuman. If she thought I might be a changeling though then she didn’t know much about me specifically yet.

Since I didn’t want her to be worried enough to lock me up, I rubbed my stomach and changed my mind.

“Well, maybe if you’ve got another apple juice? Oh, and donuts wouldn’t be bad either I guess. I haven’t had dinner yet.”

She turned to the table behind her and reached under it into the small fridge. She pulled out a pair of juice bottles and then took the box of donuts off the table itself. After checking to make sure the donuts were ok, she placed them on the conference table between the two of us.

“So you’ve had quite a scare today?” she asked, bringing up something on her tablet. Meta-awareness told me it was the latest forensic information the team at the library had submitted.

“Yeah, this has been pretty intense.”

“Still feeling a bit nervous?”

“No, I’m good.” Which translated to “please don’t break out the thumbscrews and rack, just ask your questions and let’s get this over with as fast as possible.”

I snagged a donut and started nibbling on it, though my stomach rebelled at the concept. It felt like I’d crammed the questions that I didn’t want to think about down into my guts and they’d turned into hungry beasts trying to gnaw their way out. Questions like “So how do you feel about joining us” and “Do you think you have any other choice”. Once again I’d probably read too much for own good.

The Federal Bureau of Metahuman Affairs was charged with coordinating the work of the officially licensed metahuman operatives in the employ of the federal government of the United States of America. They’d made a lot of mistakes over the years and been involved in a bunch of corruption scandals. Most of that was ancient history, but it was still scary dealing with an organization with their history and power. They seemed to be clean these days but then they’d probably seemed to be clean years ago before the old scandals came to light.

I hadn’t been considering them when we agreed to come to police station because there wasn’t a local office for FBMA in town. That Agent Haffrun was here suggested either incredible luck (one way or the other) or that she’d been aware of the events that happened tonight before they occurred.

Normally, government organizations (or employees) aren’t known for having that much foresight but the FBMA had a special advantage in that regard. Precognition isn’t a common metahuman ability, but the FBMA has a few on their payroll. They don’t do field work though, so Agent Haffrun was probably working at their direction if she’d been tipped off that something was going to occur tonight.

Even without being a pre-cog herself, I still thought it was fairly impressive that Agent Haffrun had been able to pick me out as a potential meta-human. From what I’d read even the very best precogs couldn’t make exact predictions about the future and most had little control over what they saw. At best Agent Haffrun would have gotten cryptic and symbolic directions and had to piece things together from there.

I shouldn’t have been that surprised though I decided. Even with limits like that, pre-cogs made a huge difference in the world..

Three years ago the FBMA pre-cogs, along with a variety of other early warning systems, had prepared us for the most recent global invasion. It had been a total disaster for the invaders. Earth’s heroes and military forces had annihilated them in under an hour despite the enemy troops numbering in the millions.

What that meant for me was that Agent Haffrun was probably sent here with a fairly general agenda and was clever enough to put the pieces together without a lot to go on. I could only think of two things that would be on a general agenda like that. She would either want to recruit me, or she’d want an excuse to lock me up. Of the two I wasn’t sure which scared me more.

Being locked up in either a padded room or a prison cell would be terrible for obvious reasons. Joining the FBMA would mean becoming a public super hero though, which was terrible in more subtle ways.

As a superhero, I’d need to be trained in whatever powers I was developing. Trained at a special facility far away from civilian population centers. Trained far away from my family.

The “training” wasn’t for a set duration either. Depending on what a new meta-human’s powers were it could take anywhere from a couple months of study to several years of grueling effort to develop an acceptable level of control over them. Each case was treated differently, but the one constant was that metahumans in training were strictly supervised when interacting with anyone.

Images of sitting at Thanksgiving dinner flanked by guys in black suits with heavy firearms passed through my head.

Beyond that, if I became a licensed superhero, things would never be the same. I would become a public figure overnight. I could wear a mask, but unless my powers let me hide myself really well I’d probably be found out. There would be too many people I’d have to interact with who would know my real identity for the secret to stay hidden forever.

I’d probably have to fight too. Most licensed super heroes are assigned to a city, like Heartbeat and Professor Platinum are for Brassport. They collect a nice salary and have excellent benefits but they’re expected to stand as the first line of defense against all the craziness that the world throws at their hometown.

Giant lizard wanders out of the bay at 2:00am? Army of demonic snowmen attack on Christmas morning? Supervillain with a werewolf ray cruises into town and starts turning people into fluffy murderbeasts? Those all happened in the last ten years just in Brassport and the local super heroes were the first ones to get the call.

The training helps of course. Most of the time the heroes can deal with whatever’s come up, either on their own or by calling in backup. Not all the time though. Superheroes don’t come back from all the calls that go out. And they’re not always able to to save everyone.

I thought of my Dad and the last time I saw him.

“Let me start by thanking you.” Agent Haffrun interrupted my train of thought, for which I was secretly glad. It wasn’t going anywhere pleasant.

“Thanking me?”

“Calling in the report that you did took courage. It’s hard to get involved. Thanks to you though we’ve found clear evidence of a mystical incursion in time to act on it.”

“Oh, uh, it was my brother that called actually.” I admitted.

“I’ll extend the Bureau’s thanks to him as well then. He was the one who found you after the incident right?”

“Yeah.”

“From what he’s said, he didn’t see any signs of the Shadow Court when he found you?”

“I don’t think so. I mean, I think they were gone by the time he got there.”

“That fits their profile.”, Agent Haffrun agreed. Her tone was gentle where I’d been expecting it to be accusatory. For an interrogation, it didn’t feel like she was really pressing me for info. That was somehow comforting and worrisome at the same time.

“Did you say you found evidence they were there?” I asked, curiosity overcoming my apprehension at speaking with her.

“Oh yes. The forensics team is reporting that this is one of the “hottest” sites they’ve encountered. Usually we just find faint residues at locations where an abduction has occurred. In those cases, if we’re lucky, we can get one of our mystically gifted agents onsite before the residue evaporates and we lose the trail completely.”

“This time…”, she continued, “…it’s like we found a superhighway instead of a trail of breadcrumbs.”

“So you’ll be able to help any kids that they caught?” I was relieved to hear that, and also relieved that, strange as the experience had been, at least part of what I’d encountered behind the library was being confirmed as real by other people.

“We’re assembling a Task Force now. From what we’ve been able to determine the abduction attempt at the library wasn’t successful and with a trail this clear we might be able to find out where their real stronghold is. We’ll be paying them a little visit in whatever faeryland they’re calling home.”

Not all creatures use portals to move between the different parallel Earths exist. More magic rich worlds can breed creatures that can shift across dimensions naturally. At least that was the current theory behind what the Shadow Court were.

“In terms of the amount of good we may be able to accomplish based on this, I’d say you deserve a medal for calling it in.” Agent Haffrun commented, making a note on her tablet.

I flinched at the thought of a medal. Recognition was not going to do me any good. The Shadow Court might not risk approaching me again after what happened in the parking lot but there were a lot of things out there that were stronger and worse than them.

“You deserve one, but since you’re still a minor we will be keeping your involvement in this strictly off the record.” she added, answering my nervousness with calm patience.

“You can do that?” I asked, surprised they’d be willing to help hide me. It would be a lot easier to make me join up if I was out in the public eye already after all.

“Certainly. Do you know what our mandate at the Bureau is?” she asked.

“You ‘coordinate and administer the employment of metahuman personnel who are acting as official agents of the federal government in all sovereign territories and in foreign states where they are working as the result of joint ventures or world crisis.’” I rattled off.

“You’ve read our charter, a few times, I see.” she laughed, “That’s our official, legal mandate. We normally focus on a much simpler one. Basically we take care of the support and logistical issues to make superheroes more effective.”

“The licensed ones right?”

“Right. We have no official relationship with unlicensed meta-humans.” she confirmed. I barely needed my meta-awareness to hear what she was really saying there.

Meta-humans came in many different varieties. Whatever the source of their powers though, legally they fell into one of three types; Licensed, Unlicensed and Criminal.

Licensed meta-humans were the ones who chose to register with the federal government and had passed through the required training courses. They tended to either work for the FBMA or in private sector businesses where insurance or governmental regulations required them to be licensed.

Legally there was no requirement to be licensed if you possessed metahuman abilities. Various states had tried to pass laws over the last fifty years to circumvent that or require licensing in the face of the Supreme Court decision that ruled it unconstitutional. They’d either failed to achieve the required votes or been struck down by the state courts as well, but it was still something that came up for debate during election seasons.

Of the unlicensed metahumans, most lead normal lives. Either their powers were minor enough that they didn’t have much impact on their day-to-day existence or they used them in ways that weren’t covered by any regulations.

The were others though who chose to act in secret, for any of a variety of reasons.

These “Masks” were the most contentious point when it came to discussions on licensing meta-humans. There was no oversight for how a Mask used their powers. Technically they were vigilantes, at best. Most had a shaky connection with the law, though the ones who’d operated longer and kept their actions mostly within the law were at least respected if not fully trusted.

Agent Haffrun, for example, couldn’t work with one in her official capacity as a representative of the FBMA except in crisis situations where any and all help had to be accepted. Unofficially though? That was something I’d never thought of before.

“So what does taking care of support and logistics mean?” I asked. I knew what I’d read, but I could tell there was a lot that went on outside of the official channels.

“Logistics is pretty simple. We handle the calls and act as dispatchers for the agents we work with. A lot of TV shows seem to think that we give out our agents numbers to everyone in the world and the agents have to deal with a big red phone waking them up every five minutes. We’ve found it’s a little better to have a staff of trained operators field those calls though.”

“Don’t a lot of problems come up at night though?”

“Yes, but we plan our shifts around that. We try to balance them so that our agents don’t get too worn down. That’s another part of Logistics.”

“So what about support?”

“That takes a lot of forms. I tend to do a lot of the paperwork for the agents I work with for example. That way all the needed records are kept and their time isn’t wasted. When Heartbeat was assigned here, I also handled getting her set up with living accommodations and helped her move in. It’s not the kind of thing that shows up on a job description but it made the transition smoother.”

Living accommodations, agents to pose as her parents when needed, entry to a new school, a credit card and petty cash to live off till her first paycheck arrived; my meta-awareness was showing me a lot more than Agent Haffrun was explicitly saying.

That got me thinking about how much passed unnoticed even in the life of a celebrity like Heartbeat. I’d never thought of her going to school in Brassport. I’d just assumed she had private tutors. It would probably be safer if she did, but I could kind of understand why they’d want to keep her in school for socialization purposes.

“Have you ever thought of joining the Bureau?” Agent Haffrun asked. Her tone conveyed only casual curiosity but the question hit me like a brick anyways.

No! I wanted to scream. I don’t wanted to give up my family for who knows how long. I don’t want to be poked and prodded and “tested” in some secret facility. “Dissected like a frog” was the usual joke people made but at the moment all I could imagine was someone cutting open my head to see how my brain worked.

“We employ a lot of non-powered people after all, about ten for each metahuman.” Agent Haffrun pointed out. She’d noticed the impact her earlier words had on me. She knew what my instinctive panic meant. Knew that it confirmed her belief that I was a metahuman. I might as well have blurted it out, and yet she wasn’t concerned about it either. Instead she continued on, not pressing the issue in any way.

“It’s not something you’d need to decide on for a while, but if you’re interested there are some high school level programs we run to familiarize people your age with what we do. It takes a lot of work to meet our recruitment requirements so we like people to be able to start thinking about it early on.” she explained.

“That sounds…interesting.” I replied forcing the muscles of my face to thaw.

“We try to keep it fun. Otherwise we wind up with a class of teenagers nodding off for the whole week and nobody gets anything out of it.”

“Just let us sleep in past 6:00am and we’d probably be fine.” I joked.

“Is that the time you get up for school?” she asked.

“Yeah, sometimes earlier if my step-Dad needs the car in the morning.”

“Ugh. That’s almost criminal.”

“When do you get up?”

“I work a late shift so there’s only one 6 o’clock in my day and it’s not that one.”

I laughed. On some level I was still suspicious that she was manipulating me, but on another it was so hard not to like her.

“Speaking of the late shift though, I shouldn’t keep you here too long. Especially if you need to get up for 6:00 tomorrow.”, Agent Haffrun shuffled the notes in her manilla folders,

“I’ve read the report the first responders put together. Could you review it and see if you can think of anything they missed or that might be helpful to add?” she asked as she slid one of the folders over to me.

The report was pretty dull. Clipped phrases that could still be parsed as basic English. All direct observations without the embellishments that would have captured how surreal the experience was. Reading the report I got the sense of this being a bland, everyday sort of event, notable only for the potentially serious danger to a minor. Despite that it seemed to cover all the facts that were provably true.

I still wasn’t sure how what I remembered fit in with the real world, so I didn’t feel like I needed to mention anything about that. Maybe after I talked to Pen, if I could talk to Pen, I’d have a better idea what was going on. I could always call and explain things then. Or send an anonymous note or something.

“It looks good. I think they got everything we said.” I told Agent Haffrun as I push the envelope back to her.

“That’s your copy actually. If you can keep it and read it again tomorrow, I’d appreciate that. Sometimes we remember little details once we’re back in a less stressful environment and for cases like this one the little details can make all the difference in the world.”

“Oh, okay.”

“My card’s in there too. Feel free to call me anytime if you remember something. The bureau doesn’t have an office in town so I’m renting an apartment while I’m here. The address is on the card or you can reach me here through the police if something comes up.”

She was giving me her address? That seemed weird until intuition and awareness filled in the blanks. She knew I was a metahuman. She was letting me leave so she probably didn’t think I was a villain in disguise. If I wasn’t going to come forward and register she wasn’t going to pressure me and risk me going rogue.

She’d watch me and she’d make it easy for me to seek her out for help when, not if, I needed it. In her view, working with a “Mask” was much better than alienating someone of unknown capabilities who was reluctant to become a public ally.

My awareness caught something else though. She was alone. That meant she was fairly senior and was trusted to handle things in her own way. I’d been lucky to run into her. There were certainly people in the FBMA who favored more of a “hard sell” approach and looked on metahumans as a resource “to be obtained by any means necessary”.

There’d been stories that had surfaced of the Bureau’s practices years ago that showed what a bad idea that could be and how more than a few villains had gotten their start that way. Some people don’t learn much from history though.

“It looks like we’ll have the Task Force set up to pursue the Shadow Court ready shortly. That should mean that you’ll be safe to leave here within the hour.” Agent Haffrun said as she stood. I got up too, seeing that the interview was over.

I felt stunned in a good way for a change. I’d been dreading the interview so much and it had turned out to be relatively painless aside from a scare I’d inflicted on myself. I’d come into the room expecting to have to defend myself with only the ragged tatters of wits that I had left. Instead it felt like I’d found someone who might be an ally if it turned out I needed one.

“It was a pleasure to meet you Miss Smith.” Agent Haffrun said and extended her hand.

“It was nice to meet you too.” I replied as I shook her hand. Her hand felt normal and warm in mine but something in the contact was different.

A vista opened in my mind’s eye. An alien world of gleaming spires and sprawling civilization. Agent Lynn Haffrun’s homeworld.

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