He'd spent the descent into Washington DC this morning thinking about how he'd explain himself at the banquet. It was a question he'd asked himself before – how did you go about introducing the sort of work he did? "Hello. My name is Marcus Avery. I'm eighteen years old. I am an American citizen, and I've been training to be a terrorist since I was eleven. What do you do for a living?"
But now, under the great arched ceiling of the Presidential ballroom, done up in uncomfortable finery and a too-stiff starched collar, he bit his tongue. It wouldn't do to insult of the Secretary of Defense. So he just gave the man a tight-lipped smile and said, "It's an honor to meet you, too, sir."
They talked for a while longer, skirting around the unfortunate issues of child labor and international subterfuge that arose every time someone thought about Marcus's job for more than thirty seconds. Instead, they talked about the weather, the economy, and other things of little consequence. Talk of the upcoming election buzzed through the entire ballroom, so they talked about that, too, though Marcus had little interest in the Senate. He couldn't vote, even if he had cared to in the first place.
When they ran out of politics to discuss, the Secretary called over a server and ordered a glass of red wine for each of them, in spite of Marcus's protests. He hated wine – the aroma made his head spin, to say nothing of the chemical content – but he took the glass anyway, a many-faceted crystal goblet that felt foreign and expensive in his hand.
"It's Benjamin, by the way," the Secretary said, after a sip of the wine. "Walter has told me everything about you."
Walter. The General. Of course. "I'm sure he has," Marcus said, though he was certain that nothing important had been disclosed. "Your support would be irreplaceable."
Mister Benjamin smiled. "It's an interesting idea. Your program. And irreplaceable itself, if I understand correctly."
"Some of us like to think so," Marcus said.
Benjamin laughed. "Walter has suggested I take a tour of the premises sometime."
The Flightpath Academy was used to entertaining visiting dignitaries, but it had never had a guest as important as the Secretary of Defense. The General might have found the notion amusing. But for Marcus, the idea hit a little too close to home. "I'm not sure you'd like what you'd see, sir."
"Perhaps not." Benjamin shrugged. "It was only an idea."
Fortunately, the Secretary of Defense had many more important things to do than chat up the ISA's pet project. So after another minute or two, he excused himself toward the food line, and Marcus was alone again.
Still shaken, and having no great desire to interact further with the other patrons of the event, Marcus went upstairs, where there was a balcony overhanging the many circular dining tables on the great floor. There, the General's men, whoever they happened to be tonight, wouldn't bother him. And from there, he could see the entire ballroom at once - the politicians and their wives, in double-breasted suits and garishly colored dresses; the Intelligence people, grouped mostly around the high-ranking executives; and the military men, in little islands scattered around the floor, keeping mostly to themselves.
In theory, he belonged to at least two of those groups. His formal uniform, the one still at home in his closet, identified him as Army personnel. The insignia sewn to the shoulder labeled him part of the Intelligence Support Activity. And the General seemed determined to push him toward politics, too, though he was indifferent to policymaking and hated bureaucracy.
But the truth, though the General was loath to see it, was that Marcus didn't belong in any of the groups present tonight. He wasn't a soldier, he wasn't a spy or a wire-tapper, and he wasn't a negotiator. He was the hand of a subtler justice. He'd heard his field referred to as "white terror" – to differentiate it from terror of other colors, he supposed – but that wasn't quite accurate, either. His job was to deal with crime rings and terrorist groups on their own terms.
It was highly questionable, perhaps, but it was also highly effective. Terrorists, criminals and fanatics were only powerful because no one else would stoop to their level. They expected to deal with red-tape-bound law enforcement, and soldiers working under the Geneva Convention. They were flummoxed when confronted with kidnapping, blackmail, or outright sabotage. Especially in first-world countries, where Marcus and his squad specialized.
It was strange, he thought, leaning over the railing, knowing that the majority of the two hundred people below him would disapprove of his work. He spent most of his time working with other people in his field. It didn't feel like a strange or reprehensible profession until he was confronted with people who thought it was. Or who would think it was, if they could imagine it actually existing.
There were very few people at this sort of occasion who knew enough about him to use his name, and almost none who would use that tone of voice. He glanced over his shoulder, and was surprised to see a man with close-cropped hair and a salt-and-pepper beard. The patch on his shoulder was unfamiliar and the rank pinned to his chest was wrong, but the fragile wings-and-spire pin hooked into his lapel marked him as an officer of the Flightpath Academy. "Captain Kurtzweil?"
"One and the same." He offered his hand, and Marcus shook it, tentatively. "I've been promoted, though. It's Major Kurtzweil, now."
Marcus congratulated him, and then stood there, unsure what to say. Kurtzweil was a former Flightpath officer. He was the man responsible for the success of the Alpha class, who graduated three years ago. But rather than pick up a new class and start from scratch, Kurtzweil had left the program in search of greener pastures. Rumor had it he was working in California.
"I didn't know you drank," the Major said, gesturing to the wine glass in Marcus's hand.
"I don't." It was the extravagant thing that the Secretary had picked out for him, because he hadn't gone looking for a sink to pour it down. "But if I carry the glass with me, no one will offer me more."
Kurtzweil laughed and joined him in leaning over the railing. "So what brings you here tonight? I didn't expect to see any familiar faces."
Marcus was surprised his face was classed as "familiar."His was probably the best-known face in Flightpath, but he had been a fourth-year student when Kurtzweil left. He was half a foot taller now, and a lot less gangly. But he answered anyway. "Advertising. You know. Being the administration's lapdog. What about you?"
"Advertising?" The Major looked startled, and maybe upset. "For what?"
"Funding. Policy sponsorship. I don't really know. I'm just supposed to stand here and look pretty."
"They're not thinking of expanding the program, are they?"
"They already have." Marcus shrugged. "Forty of the first-years made it past the preliminaries."
"Forty? How many were there to begin with?"
"Sixty-two, I think."
Kurtzweil was quiet, a dark look on his face.
Marcus looked down at the great floor. "I didn't think you'd still have a vested interest."
"I'm still in touch with my squads, Marcus." The Major almost sounded affronted.
"I'm not on one of your squads," Marcus said mildly. "And neither are the kids back home."
The Major looked at him, long and hard, as if he wanted to say something, but didn't think he should. Then he shook his head and sighed. "What are you doing these days? You must have graduated by now."
"No. Not yet." When Kurtzweil looked surprised, he went on, "I'm in the Echo class. We're in our seventh year. So I've got another year at the Academy and then half a decade with the force. We'll see, after that."
"You're a seventh-year?" The Major looked away, down toward the tables on the floor. "That's right. You were under Alina. But you're awfully young to be here, then."
Captain Alina Sorensen was Marcus's commanding officer, an Army woman in her late thirties. "My ID says I'm twenty-three, sir."
"And how many years off is that?"
"More than you'd like to hear," Marcus said. "And I can't tell you, anyway. But I'm not old for my class."
"So you're eighteen. Or nineteen?"
Marcus didn't say anything. The Major knew he couldn't respond. And the man was capable of subtraction, anyway.
"Why you?" Kurtzweil asked, still not looking at him. "I don't mean to be rude, but it seems like a strange choice. You don't seem to be much of a fan of the program, anyway."
"Because they know I'll cooperate. Because I can be professional. Because I can rattle off program specifications backwards and forwards. Because I don't seem like a psychotic wreck." He shrugged. "Or maybe just because I'm cute."
"Who are you here with?"
"Oh." The Major didn't say anything for a minute. Then he said, "That's right. I remember now. Alina complained about his interest in you a lot. I didn't realize that that would land you here."
"Neither did I. But she didn't need to worry, in any case. I can take care of myself."
"I'm sure you can," Kurtzweil said, looking at him strangely.
They were both quiet for a minute. Kurtzweil stopped staring after a few seconds, but the discomfort was obvious in his expression. "What?" Marcus asked finally.
"Nothing. Do you want to go downstairs? The food is excellent."
He didn't, particularly, but he didn't want to stay here with the Major, either. So he agreed that food sounded like a good idea, and they walked down the stairs to the great floor.
The banquet table, piled high with food, looked to be the center of the event. It was surrounded by a clot of people from all the government sectors present tonight. It seemed to be the only place in the ballroom where people intermingled without any rules, talking about this and that before they slipped off toward the more private dining tables. The line for food was shorter than it had been earlier in the night, but the chatter from the merry party-goers around it was deafening.
As they got closer to the table, Kurtzweil pointed out a number of the dishes available – roasted lamb with rosemary, a platter of fine aged cheeses, and a dozen different species of hors d'oeuvre. Marcus was hardly a connoisseur, and probably wouldn't have known the difference between a fine cheese and a terrible one, but he took what the Major suggested anyway.
When they were finished with the banquet table, the sea of people surrounding it swallowed them. Kurtzweil was swept into a conversation with an aging blonde woman whose job had something to do with the Senator from Delaware. Marcus drifted to the edge of the group, glad to be alone again. A server relieved him of his plate, which was kind, but the man left him with his still-full glass of wine. He sighed and ducked out of a potential conversation with a CIA officer in order to find a restroom.
The bathrooms were as extravagant as the rest of the venue, black and white marble lit by a many-tiered chandelier. They were also quiet, and surprisingly empty. Marcus emptied the glass of wine he was still holding into the sink. Then he spent a long time washing his hands, and staring at the unfamiliar reflection in the mirror.
The man in the mirror was well-dressed, well-groomed, and unruffled by the sight of himself. Marcus, on the other hand, felt trapped in the fitted suit the General had sent him, and out of his element surrounded by such extravagance. This wasn't the first time he'd done a publicity stunt for Flightpath, but it was the first time he'd been brought to an event that drew such a varied crowd. It should have made things easier, maybe, being able to wander around on his own. But he didn't know what to expect.
He was used to being stared at, examined like a caged animal, as politicians and intelligence officers alike tried to discern the psychological damages required to be an effective intelligence agent before adulthood. But tonight, the people examining him were subtle about it. Anyone and everyone might be watching. It made the entire affair more nerve-wracking. At least when he was being treated like a piece of merchandise, he knew what he was dealing with.
But this wasn't the time or place to be nervous, so he turned off the water and dried his hands, and took a deep breath before he walked back out the door.
Back on the great floor, the CIA officer was still waiting for him. The man's name badge proclaimed his name was Hendricks, but all Marcus understood was that this was someone else he was supposed to impress. So he entertained the man for a few minutes with talk of the food and the ballroom architecture – both of which Hendricks seemed quite opinionated about – and then they really started talking.
Hendricks wanted to know about Marcus's training and qualifications. He wanted to know about the strategies Marcus employed on missions, and what missions entailed. Marcus wasn't certain he was allowed to talk about those parts of his work, so he dodged the questions that he could, and gave vague answers to the ones he couldn't.
Marcus was in the middle of explaining Flightpath's approach to teaching strategy when there was a gasp, suddenly, from ten feet to his right. He turned in time to see a big man in a gray suit fall to the floor. "Senator?" the woman beside him panted, carefully balancing her glass of wine on her plate of hors d'oeuvres. "Senator, are you all right?"
Hendricks had started saying something, oblivious. "Wait," Marcus said, interrupting.
The rest of the crowd was reacting slowly, with gasps and cries of distress, but no one stepped forward to do anything. It was as if none of them had ever seen a heart attack before. Or maybe they were just concerned about getting their formalwear dusty from the marble floor.
"What?" Hendricks asked.
"Someone call an ambulance!" the woman with the hors d'oeurves cried.
Marcus was pretty sure that performing a medical intervention was one of the things he wasn't supposed to do tonight. But he also was pretty sure that an ambulance would take more than five minutes to get here, which could be problematic for the Senator.
And no one else was doing anything.
Hendricks seemed to notice the Senator, then, suddenly. "Oh my god."
"Wait here," Marcus said, and pushed his way through the crowd.
The Senator was face-down in a puddle of reddish purple, his wine glass shattered on the floor beside him. The woman with the hors d'oeurves, still standing over him and shrieking, took a step back when Marcus appeared. The rest of the crowd parted to make room for her.
There was something to be said for making it look like you knew what you were doing.
Marcus knelt on the floor and turned the Senator on his back, being careful to avoid the broken glass. He didn't suppose the Senator had ever been much of a looker, but the man's overlarge nose looked broken now, slowly dripping blood. Avoiding the fluids, he tried the man's wrist and neck for a pulse. Nothing.
"You," he said, looking up, and picking out one of the gawkers at random. "Dial 911. Or find someone else to do it."
The woman pulled out a cell phone, and he returned his attention to the Senator, who probably had about three minutes left before lack of oxygen started damaging his brain. Marcus had done CPR before, a number of times, but that had always been on mannequins with no real heartbeat, who weren't going to die if he forgot what he was doing. But he remembered that you were supposed to compress the person's chest about a hundred times a minute, to artificially pump blood through the heart.
He also remembered something about mouth-to-mouth resuscitation, but he'd rather pretend he'd forgotten that detail. He thought he recalled that chest compressions, not mouth-to-mouth, were the important part of CPR anyway.
The man's chest was large and his shirt was stained reddish-purple from the wine. The sweet aged smell made his stomach turn, but Marcus took a deep breath and locked his hands together anyway. The pumping motion was easy once he had done it a few times, though it was hard to know if he was pushing hard enough. The mannequins in his field medicine class didn't have the Senator's extra bulk.
In honesty, he wasn't sure how great a different it would make either way. If memory served, only one or two percent of cardiac arrest victims with a stopped heart ever regained consciousness from CPR alone. What this man needed was defibrillation.
He glanced up, careful to keep pumping at the Senator's chest. Kurtzweil was standing over him, a dubious expression on his face. "What?" Marcus snapped.
The Major knelt down next to him. "Do you have any idea what you're doing?"
"More than anyone else here, apparently. Could you do better?"
"Probably not," the Major said. "I was just wondering how hard I should be looking for someone properly trained."
"If you find someone better qualified, feel free to send them over," Marcus said. "But what you should really do is see if you can track down a defibrillator. A lot of public places have them."
The Major nodded, poised to leave, but hesitated.
"What?" Marcus demanded. Time was of the essence.
"Marcus," the Major said, very neutrally, "Does that group behind you look familiar?"
Marcus glanced back over his shoulder, and a chill slid down his spine. The crowd behind him had thinned considerably. The only group of people remaining was a clot of well-dressed Intelligence officers, headed by Hendricks, intently watching him. The General, gray-haired and squat, stood beside them, looking every part the salesman.
If he hadn't been nauseous before, he was now. He hadn't meant for this to be an exhibition.
His hands were shaking, suddenly, and he had to force them to keep going. "Don't worry about it," he told the Major, because he didn't think there was much to say. "Just work on finding a defibrillator."
Kurtzweil nodded and left.
It was funny, Marcus thought, to be giving orders to a superior officer, even informally. But that wasn't the only part of this situation that was funny. What was really, terribly, twistedly funny was the way the General had taken this in stride. To him, it was just another chance to showcase his star student at work. It was probably a more entertaining spectacle that the reserved eighteen-year-old who didn't want to drink, anyway.
That thought made him angry, which wouldn't do. However the General treated this incident, there was still someone's life at stake. So Marcus blinked a few times, re-steadied his hands, and forced himself to breathe.
There was a set of breathing exercises he'd learned when he was younger – a breath held for three seconds, then one held for five, and one held for ten. That was how he passed the time now, depressing the Senator's chest twice for second he counted. At the very least, the exercise forced his heart to stop banging so loudly in his ears, and gave his brain something to focus on besides the eyes boring into the back of his neck.
It might have been five minutes, or it might have been ten, after he started counting breaths, that he heard sirens. Kurtzweil still hadn't returned. But the next thing he knew, a paramedic in a bright yellow jacket was on the floor next to him, telling him that the situation was under control. The paramedic's partner had a defibrillator halfway out of its box. Another member of the team was talking to the hors d'oeuvres woman, whose glass was still balanced awkwardly atop her plate, about the Senator's family and origins. The man's name, Marcus learned, was Robert Gordon, and he was from Rhode Island.
The paramedics had questions for him, too, which he answered as well as he could. Yes, he was CPR certified. No, he didn't have the any paperwork with him to prove it. He was just a Westpoint graduate, wet behind the ears, in the wrong place at the wrong time. He wasn't an Army medic. He hadn't even seen what had happened. Eventually, they let him go, which was nice, because he wanted nothing more than to disappear.
Unfortunately, the General would allow for no such thing. As soon as the paramedics were gone, Hendricks and the other Intelligence people were on top of him.
Only a few of them even had real questions – was he trained for this? Did his program teach medicine? Had he ever responded to an emergency before? No, no, and also no, at least not a medical emergency. Most of them seemed content to just vacuum up his responses and calculate the obvious damages for themselves. As if the psychoanalysis were that simple.
"It is fascinating how stoic he is," one of them told the General, as if Marcus wasn't within earshot. "He's not even shaken."
"That's the way the best of them are," the General said, with a smile.
Marcus couldn't stand to be talked about like he wasn't there, so he dealt with the rest of Hendrick's questions and left.
Kurtzweil found him an hour later, perched on the balcony overhanging the now-deserted great floor. The banquet was emptying out, though the night was still young – apparently cardiac arrest was a real mood killer.
"Are you all right?" the Major asked.
"I'm fine." He was, mostly. He just wasn't a social creature, even at the best of times.
"The General is looking for you."
"That's nice of him," Marcus said. "I don't suppose he wants to lose track of his star student. It'd be a pity if the poor kid got lost."
Kurtzweil looked at him, in a way that was maybe supposed to be sympathetic. "You did good back there, Marcus. The Senator had the best he could have asked for."
"I'm glad you think so," Marcus said, though Kurtzweil was hardly in a position to judge. "Luckily for me, my reputation isn't at stake either way. The General will play tonight's events how he pleases, and Flightpath will reap the benefits."
The Major frowned. "But you don't want that."
Marcus shrugged. "The General doesn't care what I think."
"That can't be true," Kurtzweil said. "He's risking his reputation on you."
"I can't sabotage him," Marcus said. And he couldn't. Not without losing his home, his friends, and his work. "He knows that. That's the beauty of it."
Kurtzweil looked at him, grim, conflicted, unsure what to say.
At least the man didn't try to contradict him. "I need to go," Marcus said, after a moment. "I hear the General is looking for me."
Kurtzweil sighed. "Take care of yourself, Marcus."
As if he hadn't already demonstrated he was fully capable of that. "You too."
He walked down the back stairs, deliberately taking a longer route than was strictly necessary. He was sure the General had more planned for him tonight. But all he wanted was to get on his six a.m. flight and be out of this place. He was done with the General's people and their empty, insipid questions. Not that it mattered.
He reached the great floor, but his hands were still sticky from the wine on the Senator's shirt. The undersides of his fingernails were dyed reddish-purple. So he stopped by the bathroom and took his time there, too, scrubbing at his hands until he couldn't see or smell the stuff anymore.
When he was finished, he dried his hands and looked in the mirror. His lapels were a little crooked, and was a fine dust on the knees of his slacks, but otherwise it might still have been the beginning of the night. A damp paper towel took care of the dust, and a moment leaning in close to the mirror straightened his lapels.
He could do this.
But he hesitated, looking at the implacable man in the mirror. "Hello," that expression said. "My name is Marcus Avery. I'm eighteen years old. I might have saved your life tonight, but that's okay. You'll never know. Please excuse the advertisement for child labor and international terror. Don't worry, I'll be gone in the morning."
AUTHOR'S NOTE: This story is a preview for a longer-running story featuring Marcus, as well as his friends back home. If you'd like to hear more, please message me- I'd love to hear from you!
Oh, and, for those who wondered: yes, I know the definition of the word "exhibitionist". The title is meant to be double entendre...
The first chapter of Marcus's larger story will post next week. :)