The Next Generation


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Also Featuring:

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Scene Title The Next Generation
Synopsis SESA's youngest step out of the long shadows of those who came before.
Date March 29, 2019

From a distance, Governor’s Island is a green-brown smudge on the river. It’s nothing like that up close.

Even from the ferry coming in to port, Governors Island may be one of the most verdant places in the Safe Zone, save for perhaps Park Slope. It is a forested island filled with rolling, grassy parkland and winding gravel paths. In a more whimsical view, it is like the isle of Avalon in storybooks, something that is even mist-shrouded on this particularly cold January morning. Though the lush color of the island is subdued from the touch of winter; green grass tinged brown, mostly leafless trees, it still contains a sense of natural splendor to it that the urban churn of the Safe Zone does not.

Fort Jay rises up on a low hill near the middle of Governors Island, a brick-walled structure seated atop an even older star-shaped granite mound. From the harbor it is a mist-shrouded castle, complete with a red brick tower jutting up from somewhere inside the center courtyard, evoking whimsy and awe as much as it does respect. This is not a place of heavy vehicle traffic, with its winding paths mostly bare save for the occasional jogger or pedestrian. But today, there is a sleek black sedan made of sharp angles and humming with the subtle whine of an electric motor waiting for one of the ferry’s occupants to arrive.

For Jac Childs, this is where everything changes.

Fort Jay

Governors Island, NYC Safe Zone

January 10

8:12 am

Through a glass partition, Squeaks can see a tall man in a gray suit talking to Gillian. The entirety of Fort Jay’s offices feels different than the rest of the Safe Zone, even Yamagato Park. There’s so much natural wood in this building that it has a woody smell to it. There’s plants growing in recessed mulch-filled planters, mostly natural light, glass walls dividing offices and workspaces. It feels unlike any space she’s been in. But right now that glass prevents her from hearing whatever Director Kenner is saying to Gillian, his hand on her shoulder and a serious look in his eyes. It doesn’t seem to be about today. That look, Squeaks knows it. That’s how people look when they talk about the past.

The click of a door inside the room Squeaks is seated in elicits her attention to the here and now. To the corner office with tall windows overlooking a grassy courtyard, to the sleek black desk upon which sits an elderly Asian couple with warm smiles. To the nameplate on the desk: Deputy Director Madeline Choi, to the woman herself entering from the hall.

“Jac,” Choi says with a warm smile as she shuts the door behind herself, “it’s a pleasure to meet you in person, finally. Agents Ayers and Bluthner both spoke very highly of your accomplishments at Fort Hero, and I’d like to extend a personal apology for the danger you found yourself in there.”

Choi has an ease about her, a comfortable tone, a generous and honest smile. As she makes her way over to her desk, there’s no rush. She seems eager to let this moment breathe, to let Squeaks settle in to the idea of a conversation, even as Gillian entertains the conversation dropped on her by SESA’s director.

Swiveling from the window that shows her Gillian and Director Kenner to the sound of the door opening, Squeaks half hops in her seat as she looks up at the woman entering. There’s curiosity in her expression, but she tries to keep that all contained at least a little bit. She scoots forward so she’s perched on the edge of the chair and pushes her hands into her lap. Beneath the chair, the heels of her shoes tap lightly against each other.

“Thank you,” the girl offers for the apology, with just a hint that she’s not sure if that’s correct. She isn’t sure about the danger, either, but that’s not a point to debate about. “And also thank you for this opportunity.” That sounds a little more confident.

Since Choi seems in no hurry about things, Squeaks lets herself admire the office all over again. Her eyes linger for a second on the two outside the window when she comes to them, but she moves on without asking about what’s happening there. “This place is super amazing. It’s…” She searches for a way to describe her experiences so far. “It’s… primal.”

Choi squints, subtly, but the corners of her eyes crinkle into a smile as she takes a moment to roll that slang over in her mind. “It is an opportunity,” she says, sticking to business. “I'm glad you see it as one, that shows a considerable maturity. Programs like these used to be more common before the war, but they were never focused in the way SESA’s work is, one young SLC-Expressives like you and our other candidates.”

Choi opts not for her chair, but instead moves to sit on the corner of her desk beside Squeaks. “What we do here at SESA is important work for all our futures, expressive,” she motions to Squeaks, “and non,” then to herself. “You're our youngest candidate, and if after this internship you stay interested in a career with SESA we could put you on the track to becoming an agent-trainee, like the ones you'll meet on your first day.”

Choi smiles, folding her hands in her lap. “First question, most important though, do you go by Jac? I've heard Agent Bluthner also call you Squeaks, but— he… sometimes has inventive nicknames for people they don't otherwise know.”

With small movements, Squeaks scoots back from the edge of her chair, even though she stays sitting forward instead of leaning back. Choi’s voice brings her full attention back to the deputy director. The information offered is absorbed, she’ll probably have a lot of questions later, but for now she listens and digests the words.

The question from the deputy director is a small surprise. The teen’s eyebrows go up and her shoulders start to follow. “I go by both names.” Her answer interrupts the shrugging, and she settles her shoulders, then even relaxes a little bit. Her feet still tap lightly beneath her chair, probably just a nervous habit. “Squeaks is… that’s what most people usually call me, for as long as I remember. But Jac is my real name.”

Choi’s brows furrow almost imperceptibly at the answer that isn't a direct answer to her question, but she smiles through it. “Well, Ms. Childs,” she deftly dodges the first name issue for now, “let's get you started on your day one orientation.”

Fort Jay

Governors Island, NYC Safe Zone

January 13

8:27 am

Walking down the wood-walked corridors of Fort Jay, Emily Epstein is forced to reconcile the unusual circumstances of her present moment with the extraordinary circumstances of her entire life. Walking beside her, the Deputy-Director of SESA, Madeline Choi, talks about the very building they're moving through.

“Up through the Second World War, this place was the home of the Easter Defense Command. The EDC. Now, Fort Jay’s changed hands more than once since then, and it was in a sorry state of affairs when it was handed over to SESA.” Choi looks over at Emily, one brow raised. “You must have been very young during the war,” she says, then clarifies, “the recent war. Not World War II.”

Then, with a crooked smile Choi notes quietly, “If you were around during World War II, I have a whole other slew of questions I'd be asking.” It's tongue in cheek, but in other ways not. “But this is your orientation tour, not a history lesson. Of the departments you'll be working with, which are you interested in seeing first? Technical Sciences, Active Investigations, or Records?”

Choi's attempt at humor earns her a thin, polite smile from Emily. She's kept quiet on most of the tour so far, here to see more than she is to talk. To take it all in and decide if it's something she could see herself doing. The halls are storied, and she has to weigh whether or not she wants to be one of its weavers, no matter how small a way it might be.

The question the Deputy-Director poses her informs her that no matter how small a part assigned, a well-executed role will have impact. The kind of impact that could do more than just open doors for own future. "Technical Sciences," Emily answers politely, the choice easily made. For her, it's the obvious one.

“Fantastic,” Choi says with a clap of her hands together, veering to the right as she walks. “SESA’s technical team is one of the most advanced in the world. By integrating SLC-Expressives into our workforce we’ve been able to circumvent technical and material hurdles imposed by the state of the nation to maintain a high level of scientific opportunity. Our technical team leverages these resources to help solve some of the most complicated crimes in the nation and protect the rights of people like you.”

Choi stops at a glass door, opening it for Emily with a slow up and down look at her, then steps in behind her. “During your internship you’ll be working with Agent Dana Carrington, an MIT graduate — prior to the war, obviously — with an expressive ability that allows her to focus on multiple simultaneous mental tasks at once.” Through the door the wood-walled hallway Choi walks Emily past offices filled with long tables lined with computers, some with lab equipment, toward a pair of double doors at the end of the hall.

It’s there that she pauses, looking back at Emily. “I don’t mean to pry, but I just want to make sure our records aren’t out of date or— I was told you had MS. This is a wheelchair-friendly facility, so if you need to…” Choi furrows her brows. “If it seems like we’re not meeting your needs, please reach out to me directly.” There’s more than concern here, a subtle suspicion.

Like you implies not like her, something that brings Emily's gaze back toward Choi. She's on the verge of posing a question when she feels herself being looked up and down, her posture straightening even more than before. She steps through the doorway, shifting her focus pointedly away to look across the space rather than openly acknowledge the sizing up being done to her.

With that pause, though, she can't avoid it any longer. Her look is calm — she's prepared for this, as much as she was able. "I did have MS," Emily clarifies, the phrase still feeling surreal for its use of did. Past tense. "Even just a month ago, I wouldn't have been able to keep up with you as well as I am." Her mouth purses into a line before she looks back at the Deputy-Director, forcing a thin smile. "Most of my life has been spent using mobility aids. If… I come across something that I know would cause someone else's needs to be appropriately not be met, I'll be sure to reach out."

Emily doesn't want to address her healing at all if she can; not the prospective impermanence of it, and especially not the who, or the how — so she nods gently at Choi. "If I might ask, how did you get involved with SESA yourself? What made you choose this path?" she asks, reaching for the door.

Choi raises one brow to Emily, a silent assertion of inquiry about the ‘did have’ in that sentence. But it goes unremarked on for the time being. Instead, as Emily opens the door for her, Choi entertains an answer to the more immediate question. “I’ve always worked in law enforcement, actually. When I was a young girl,” Choi says, stepping through into a large lab filled with half-assembled mechanical components, computers, and humming equipment, “my family lived in a cramped apartment in the Lower East Side. We owned a small shop just outside of Chinatown. As girl I never realized what my family struggled through, paying protection money to organized crime. Threats of vandalism and… “ Choi shakes her head. “I grew up oblivious to the pain of people around me.”

As she walks into the room, Choi slows to wait for Emily to catch up with her. “I joined the NYPD in 1985, first Korean-American woman to do so. But that’s not why I joined SESA.” In the distance, there’s a snap-hiss of a soldering iron. “Before the war, I was the deputy commissioner of the NYPD under a man named Jeremy Irons. He was a Humanis First sympathizer, he helped cover up hundreds of murders using his position and influence…”

Choi turns and looks over her shoulder to Emily. “I joined SESA because that will never happen again.”

“Not on my watch.”

Fort Jay

Governors Island, NYC Safe Zone

January 15

8:38 am

“Not on my watch!

Agent Rhys Bluthner’s voice rings out across the floor of the Investigations Office, holding one arm as though it’s been broken, even if it’s just been doused in coffee. A sleight man with dark hair hustles after Rhys with a pair of napkins, feverishly apologizing as he tries to daub the mess up.

Nearby, a discarded cup of coffee lays on its side on Rhys’ desk, the dark pool steaming as it dribbles down the side of the desk onto the tile floor. Other agents at nearby desks are smirking, a few muffled threads of laughter weave around the room. All of that, including Rhys’ protesting, stops when they realize Deputy-Director Choi is standing in the entryway with one of the new interns.

“Lance,” Rhys says smoothly, shaking coffee off of his hand as if none of that just happened. “I didn’t know your orientation was today.” He says with an awkward smile, to which Choi turns over to look down at Lance with one brow raised.

“Mr. Gerken, you obviously know Agent Bluthner. The man with the guilty expression next to him is Agent-Trainee Hajime Saito, a recent graduate of our training program in KC.” Choi looks from Lance over to the agents. “You’ll be working with Agent Saito.”

“Agent Bluthner,” Lance flashes a cheeky grin to the other man, dressed himself in a grey suit that is - clearly - not fitted to him perfectly. Probably picked up from a thrift store, on his budget, although it works well enough. “You’ve got a little, uh, coffee on you— “ The grin vanishes at the director’s look as if he’d been caught with a hand in the cookie jar, and he clears his throat.

“Ah, yes ma’am. I assisted him and Agent Bowie with some of the sewer investigations,” he says, as if the Lighthouse had been asked to assist and had not in fact simply been there already when Rhys and Bowie showed up, Scooby-dooing up the place..

Agent Saito’s given a curious once over, and then he offers an easy smile and a hand that isn’t covered in coffee, “Hi. Lance Gerken.”

Choi’s expression hardens at the mention of the sewer investigation and her brows furrow, lips downturned into a frown. The grim expression passes as she turns a look over to Rhys and Saito. The former grimaces at Lance in a I’ll get you later sort of way, while Agent-Trainee Saito approaches with a formal, “It’s an absolute pleasure, Mr. Gerken,” taking the offered hand in a gentle shake.

“I’m excited to have the opportunity to be liaison to the agent interns,” Saito admits with an easy smile, “we have some really interesting cases going on right now, and — clearance permitting — you’ll be able to ride along with some of our non-dangerous field work and watch agents in their active environment!”

Choi takes a few steps away from Lance, walking over to Rhys. She whispers something to him, hand clapped on his shoulder, and Rhys flashes her a reassured smile as he turns about and heads out of the office floor with a quick wave to Lance on the way out. Saito eyes the exchange, but says nothing in return. Instead, he turns his focus back to Lance.

“I’ve heard the name Bowie around here quite a bit,” Saito admits with a smile. “It takes a special someone to be reassigned to the KC SESA branch, I can’t even imagine the kinds of cases he’s working now.” Then, a bit less glowing he asks, “So, what inspired you to accept this offer?”

“He did, really,” admits Lance, after flashing Rhys a parting grin, looking back to Saito, “Bowie, I mean. I— well, I was raised with the Ferry, so I didn’t exactly have a real high opinion of the government after everything that happened.” The smile fades there; everyone’s seen the videos, children cut down by drone fire, concentration camps, the horrors of the war that followed…

“When we were in trouble, he listened,” he says with a slight spread of his hands, “Even though most people just treated me and my friends like kids, he took us seriously, and did everything he could to help. If we had people like him working for SESA, then I figured they could use more, too.” He grins a little, “Agent Quinn encouraged me too.”

Saito makes an uncomfortable face when Agent Quinn is mentioned, but it quickly fades as he flashes a smile. “Agent Quinn is— very professional.” Seeing Saito’s discomfort, Choi steps in and interjects.

“One of Saito’s first assignments was with Agent Quinn and… it was a very harrowing experience, due to the nature of the case.” Choi motions for Lance to follow her as she walks further into the office and Rhys, content to observe, hangs at the periphery of the room. “Your Ferryman connections are one of the reasons we wanted to make this offer to you. You and the other interns we’re bringing on board represent young people born into the tragedies of the old world. Who better to mold, and who better to learn from, than those most directly impacted.”

With a mild smile, Choi looks over to Saito. “Why don’t you show Agent Gerken to where his desk is.”

He gets a DESK.

Fort Jay

Governors Island, NYC Safe Zone

March 29th

10:08 am

Since the start of the new year, Fort Jay has been home to a trio of young faces learning the way SESA operates on a day-to-day basis. Lance Gerken, Jac Childs, and Emily Epstein have come and gone from Fort Jay and gradually become inured to the processes of agents and agent-adjacent officers of SESA. While the first few months of orientation, training, and instructions on their responsibilities was dry and without interest on first blush, the third month of internship would be unlike anything the trio would have expected.

At around 10:00 in the morning on an otherwise quiet and cloudy Friday, every SESA agent in the open-concept central office abruptly rose from their desks and filed into a conference room. No email notifications came up at the trio of desks for the interns, who watched as agent after agent disappeared, some forgetting to even so much as grab their coffees. The hum of electronics replaces the quiet din of conversation and clicking keys, and just minutes after the entire room cleared the interns are left to consider the unusual nature of this all-hands meeting.

Right up until they see Rhys through the glass walls of the hall before he steps in to the central office. “Boy the Director sure knows how to clear a room, huh?” He glances at a computer someone forgot to lock, then back up to the desks with a thin smile. “I guess today’s the day,” is probably more ominous than Rhys meant it.

"What's happening today?" Emily asks, but even as she sees Rhys peer down at the unlocked computer, she's coming to her feet from her own desk to get a look at the screen. Hey, if he's looking already, then it's fair game as far as she's concerned. She'd bit her tongue on asking anyone directly if the meeting they had all gone to was something they should have been copied on, but were omitted from due to simple neglect.

There's some small amount of relief, entirely unmerited, that comes from Rhys mentioning it was the Director that caused everyone to clear out … and not Cooper, having forewarned those who sit near her about his next harebrained revenge scheme.

"Good morning, by the way," she mutters as she leans over the dividing wall.

As everyone got up and left, Squeaks let it capture her attention. She even leans in toward her friends, probably to ask about the strangeness of it, but further movement attracts a look in Rhys’ direction. Seeing the agent makes her slowly sink back into her chair. The guilty look is left off, though, since Emily voices one of the same questions on her mind.

“Are we supposed to go too?” becomes her contribution, another one from her endless supply of questions. The youngest of the three interns half stands again and cranes her neck to look after where the last of the workers disappeared to.

Lance was already eying that same computer that had been unlocked that Rhys does, the urge to mess with the mouse settings and turn the screen upside-down a terrible temptation for the teenager. He hasn’t played a single prank yet, but steam can only stay inside a boiler for so long.

He cranes his neck to look up and over towards Rhys, though, brows raising a little. “Yeah, what’s going on, Agent Bluthner? SESA-vs-Wolfhound football game?”

Rhys’ expression is a mild one. “No it’s… you all can stay put. It’s an official operations thing, when something major happens and it’s classified intel active duty agents go into a room called the Vault, which is cut off from wireless data traffic, soundproofed, you know— spy stuff.” Rhys comes over to sit on the corner of Emily’s desk, hands folded in his lap. “Prior to you three joining up, we’d get calls like this about every other month or so, but ever since the… “ he looks at the floor, shaking his head. “Since January things have calmed down.”

Rhys glances in the direction of that private room, somewhere through walls and down twisting hallways. “Senior management wanted me out here to keep you from worrying. Or gossiping.” He looks at Lance, pointedly, then back to the floor. “It’s nothing world-shattering, but it is an all-hands event. One day, if you’re agents, you’ll have to deal with the responsibility of that kind of compartmentalized information, too. Our job isn’t always just looking out for people like us,” Rhys says with a motion to himself, “but also being ready to act against people who’d do us harm. Thankfully this one is just a— ”

Rhys laughs, awkwardly. “This one is just classified is what I’m supposed to say.”

Emily looks sidelong at Rhys when he throws out the perfectly legitimate classified excuse. He didn't say anything specific, but he said enough before then. She relents in trying to spy on the other computer, turning toward him and letting her arms fold tightly across the teal blouse she's wearing.

"You sure there's still no way we could be of help?" she asks lightly. They were all brought on for 'reasons', after all. She tries to hide any soreness at being one of a handful of people excluded from whatever is going on. "There was the vague promise made of hands-on opportunities when we were introduced here."

The agent is given a squinty-eyed look from Squeaks as she tries to decide if he's being honest or teasing. She must decide it's the latter if the two options, because she gets up while Emily is voicing more questions and wanders up to the door of the conference room. She doesn't go into the room, or even try yet, but stares ahead like all their answers are right there.

The mop of red hair swivels around to look at the other interns and Rhys. And again she looks like she's weighing some choices, to go further or to stay put, and this time she's leaning on the first choice.

The pointed look in Lance’s direction is answered with a spread of his hands and an faux-shocked expression, one hand pointing at himself in mock offense. Moi says that expression, Gossip??.

Yes, Lance, moi gossip.

“So if this is an all hands event…” His brows both go upwards as he looks to the others, then to Rhys, “Why are you out here with us?”

There’s a small, guilty smile that spreads across Rhys’ face. “I was briefed yesterday,” comes a little reluctantly. “And somebody needs to be here to keep an eye on you three. Don’t want you annexing the break room while everyone’s away.” Drawing in a slow breath, Rhys slides off the corner of Emily’s desk and tucks his hands into his pockets, meandering a few paces away.

“Right now, the most you can do is be ready to handle some calls and deliver confidential files across the office,” Rhys notes with a shrug of his shoulders. “Field work’s and ride-alongs are scheduled for April, so there’s no worry there. You’ll get your chances in the spotlight,” he says with a smile. “Sometimes, though, you’ve gotta…”

Rhys trails off, looking down at a point on the floor or perhaps through it, then back up and over to Emily. With a thoughtful furrow of his brow, he shakes his head and glances to the glass wall that views out into the hallway. “Anyway, I should hop back and make sure Director Choi doesn’t need anything. You all stay tight, okay?”

What Rhys failed to notice, or perhaps willfully disregarded, was the folded square of paper that had fallen out of his back pocket when he was sitting on Emily’s desk, now resting precariously on the corner of the desk. He shows no sign of going back for it, as he ambles toward the doorway, but he isn’t rushing to leave either.

Emily narrows her eyes when Rhys trails off midsentence, her attention on him sharpening when he fixes his gaze back on her the way it does. The hell is going on with him? she wonders, staring after him with some suspicion as he casually starts to wander off.

At the last moment, she notes the item left behind on her desk. Purposefully? Accidentally? Emily's gaze darts silently to Lance and then to Squeaks. She keeps her silence.

Another look is sent into the direction that all the others — all the real employees that is — disappeared to. Squeaks lingers, wondering hard about following, at least so far as to try and hear what’s happening. Rhys’ hanging thought drags her back to their current situation and she abandons her post near the doorway.

The strangeness of the agent’s mannerisms aren’t unnoticed, for all that she sometimes misses other social cues. She shares a look with Emily and then Lance as she rejoins them, noticing that slip of paper also when her eyes shift between the older teens.

Her brows raise in unspoken question. Should they touch it? Or let Rhys know it got left? Maybe both? A look shoots over her shoulder to the meandering agent’s back while at the same time she reaches out to pick up the paper. A slip of her fingers works to open it a little bit, to sneak a peek at what it could be — it’s not labeled CONFIDENTIAL, after all. Stuff like that isn’t just carried around in pockets.

In the wake of that shared look, Lance crooks one eyebrow upwards… and then the three interns’ desks are enclosed in a dome of silence that keeps their conversations from escaping to be heard by, say, Rhys. Or the security cameras.

“…that was totally on purpose,” he observes, gaze following Rhys out of the room before looking over to the paper that Squeaks is retrieving, “Safe to talk. He just said he was here to keep an eye on us, and then immediately leaves and drops that?”

A beat.

“What’s it say?”

25-04 Broadway
Jackson Heights, NYC Safe Zone, NY 11106
Off-board, alternative

It's an address, of all things. Hand-written, and not Rhys’ immaculate penmanship but something more cursive-adjacent. Broadway is up in the part of Jackson Heights that's on the border of restored settlements, fringe inhabitation areas. The physical address probably isn't far from Raytech’s offices.

There's no sign of Rhys coming back for it.

Emily leans over to see the address, brow knitting automatically in thought. She mouths out the last line as she reads it, reaching for her phone to begin looking up the address. "Yeah, I found that bizarre too," she echoes Lance's concern, thumbs flying. "We hail him down and tell him he dropped it?"

Holding the paper so that Emily and Lance can both see it, Squeaks offers a slow shrug as her first thoughts about the strangeness. “I think I know where this is,” she tacks on a second later, but she sets the paper down and points to the last part. “But I don’t know what this means.”

Not that she spends too much time wondering about it. A second or two later, she looks at the older teens with her eyebrows pushed way up. “We should investigate. If it’s important he wouldn’t have let it fall out of his pocket.” She doubts Rhys would have even had it with him like that to even fall out. “We should find out what this place is, and why it’s… whatever offboard alternative means.”

One foot pushes against the floor, and Lance’s rolling chair rattles (silently, past the group) towards the others before halting so he can get a better look at the paper. As he reads, he comments absently, “If it wasn’t important, he wouldn’t’ve dropped it so obviously for us to check out.”

The other foot pushes back, and Lance rolls back to his desk, doing a slow circle before stopping in front of it. Fingers lace together and he pushes them out, knuckles cracking, before fingers find the keys again.

They’ve got the Internet here, and Google can tell you a lot about an address.

There’s not a lot to say about 25-04 Broadway in Jackson Heights. It sits on the border of the construction line where the neighborhood sees its most active reconstruction efforts. The building, as far as the internet is concerned, is still standing. A years-abandoned street-level business front with tenements stacked above it. According to the Safe Zone Initiative Housing Authority the address is included in lottery drawings for re-habitation and is listed as still having vacancies.

Nothing else in the immediate history says it’s remarkable in any way.

Learning as much makes Emily frown, mouthing the last line of the note again. Off-board … alternative. The first thing that comes to mind when she hears such a phrase is that it could have to do with finding someone a place to live. Off-board, off-grid … close enough, even if the place wasn't exactly off-grid.

But her first takes on things were known to swing wildly off-mark on occasion. "What do you guys think?" she asks softly, despite knowing they're already shrouded in silence.

Splitting her attention between Lance and Emily’s individual searches yields only more wondering. The lack of information fuels the puzzling over not only just the why of the note being left, but now Squeaks really for reals wants to know what’s so important about the address. She folds the square of paper up again, following the same creases as before and turns her attention to the way that will eventually lead outside.

“I think we go look at this place.” Of course she would, there’s really no need to ask for her opinion. If there’s a strange thing to be investigated, she’s on it. “Probably now and not later either.”

A single finger is lifted. “If by now you mean after work, anyway,” Lance observes with a chuckle, “I think they’d be upset if we just disappeared from our desks. Still, after work we could take a turn and go visit Jackson Heights…”

He looks between the pair with a grin, “Could be interesting.”

Eight Hours Later

Jackson Heights

The sky has taken on a pinkish-red color in the west, where the sun hangs low over the jagged silhouette of Manhattan’s skyline. In the early evening hours before sunset the wall around the exclusion zone casts long and grasping shadows against the coastal regions of the Safe Zone. It isn't far away from the coast and the shadows of Manhattan that SESA’s interns find themselves after a day’s work, in the shadow of their own personal mystery.

The tenement building rising up from Broadway is run down but operational. At the ground floor level there is a small bodega with barred windows and a small neon sign indicating that it is open. Signage in the windows indicates Checks Cashed and We Accept Gold & Gas. The five floors above the bodega are all apartments, some windows closed and others open to the street. Construction noise from a few blocks away echoes out this far, but otherwise this stretch of road and this building is unremarkable.

Unfortunately this is where the breadcrumbs end. The building at 25-04 has a fire escape up its right side and a tenement lobby entrance adjacent to to the bodega’s doors.

"So how deep are we committing to the rabbit hole here?" Emily asks, eyes warily on that fire escape up, before they move more easily to the lobby door entrance. Regardless, she shakes her head to herself, hands in the pockets of her jacket. They could approach the door — if the lobby was accessible, maybe bullshit the doorman. If not, just jam the call button for every apartment.

"Because this isn't looking promising." she adds skeptically.

“Not so deep that we can’t get out again,” Squeaks decides without giving it a lot of thought. She’s learned to not go so far as to fall into trouble, even if it’s sometimes hard to know where that line is. She’s looking at the fire escape too, head tipping way close to a shoulder as she follows the steel railings up and up.

“That’s probably going to make a better way out than in,” she thinks out loud, even though a look to Lance and Emily follows saying so. “Let’s see what all this is about, maybe it’s connected somehow to the offboard alternative thing.”

“I mean, me’n Squeaks have been in worse places,” notes Lance as he cranes his neck back as well, looking up towards that labyrinth of bars that leads up the side of the building, and then he looks over to the younger girl with a grin, “I mean, this is hardly the Underneath, or the Dark.”

He shrugs, then, moving to head for the front door of the bodega, “First, though, let’s get some dinner.” Dinner and intel, hopefully.

Beyti Turkish Kebab

Jackson Heights

The sliding doors open into a well-stocked store with narrow aisles and cramped shelves. A small refrigerated grocery area is just inside beside pallets of fruit. Coolers in the back with canned drinks hum softly, while the smell of freshly cooked food wafts up from behind a deli counter above which hangs a plastic clatterboard menu with movable plastic letters. The prices are about what one would expect in the Safe Zone, $21.50 for stuffed grape leaves, $25.00 for kebabs, nearly $20 for a pack of cigarettes.

A woman behind the counter at the register cheerfully greets the three young agent-interns as they come in, and a particularly shaggy black cat on the counter beside her meows loudly in demand of attention. Another cat, orange and cream colored like a swirled sorbet yowls from atop the coolers out of arm's reach.

It is the most mundane bodega in all of New York.

Emily disagrees. It has cats. All her favorite bodega have cats. Any place is bettered immensely by their presence, actually, almost without exception.

The rest of the place is admittedly boring, though.

She brushes her hair from her face, threading strands behind her ear to get a better look at the place. Off-board. Alternative. Eh. She lifts a hand to offer her fingertips for a sniff to the cat that's out of reach. Surely he needed loving, too. She makes quiet click with her tongue in the hopes of securing its attention.

Emily has almost written the entire place off, the entire thing off entirely when a thought whispers in the back of her mind something she can't ignore. It sounds ridiculous, but it also sounds like it might fit.

"What if it was a code word," she whispers, eyes on the menu hanging by the deli counter. "You make an order using it?"

The lady behind the counter is given a shy grin, but the shaggy black cat gets a two-handed scritching of ears and cheeks. “Hi,” Squeaks says quietly, mostly to the feline, but a glance up includes the woman. After one last good scratch from head to tail, she moves on to explore the shop.

“Like a secret menu,” she asks as she comes around one of the narrow aisles to Emily’s side. It isn’t something she’s ever seen, but she’s heard about those at burger places, where you can get things that aren’t normally offered — if you know how to order.

The youngest of the three shrugs slowly, but turns her attention to the board with its offerings and prices. “Try it.” That’s to Lance, since he’s the one who first suggested getting some dinner.

“I wouldn’t know what to use as a code word,” Lance admits quietly as he looks around the aisle… and then he shrugs, “Let me see if I can get any weird vibes, though.” Coming up from whispering, he steps along back to the front and the counter, reaching out to give the cat on the counter a scritch under the chin.

“Hi,” he greets the woman, “Sorry, uh, we’re new to the neighborhood and we were hoping you could maybe let us know about it? I mean, are there any places we should avoid, or— anything?” They’re dressed like teenagers, they’re acting suspicious, being worried about living in a new place fits well enough.

The woman at the register looks up from a folded copy of the Safe Zone Siren and over to Lance. “Stay off the streets after dark,” she says with a look back to her paper, “Military doesn’t come out here often, couple of people disappeared over the winter. Kidnapped.” She glances back up to Lance, momentarily scrutinizing him. “Don’t bring any slice deals in here either,” she adds as if that needed to be said. “I don’t need the MP’s busting us over blue fairy.”

With that she returns her attention back to the newspaper, while the cat contentedly goes about manicuring its backside. Nothing about this place seems unusual at all, which is perhaps even more unusual.

A soft chime interrupts that paradox as the bodega’s sliding doors open and a blonde woman in her late twenties or early thirties comes walking in, looking down at a rolled up newspaper, headphones covering her ears. She weaves around Squeaks without looking up from the paper, head bopping to the loud beats coming out from the headphones. Lance recognizes it as Army of None, a single off of a posthumous album by the late SLC-E rapper Shard.

The blonde woman steps around Emily, booted feet scuffing the floor as she does, then leans across her field of view to snatch a package of Hostess Twinkies off of the shelf, then continues to read and walk while listening to her music all the way up to the register, waiting in “line” behind Lance.

"God. Lance," Emily hisses between her teeth as he heads off, internally cringing as he heads off to engage in social interaction he doesn't necessarily need to. She looks to Squeaks with a shrug of her shoulders, glancing up from her when the door opens. Only because she's looking up does she try to step out of the way of the woman, gaze going after her, and seeking Lance's for his take on things.

She stays rooted to the spot, momentarily distracted from her plan to ask for an 'off-board' or 'alternative' offering at the deli counter.

“That's… we wouldn't. No.” Nope. Squeaks shakes her head, just in case the lady didn't understand that they're not looking to bring trouble into the bodega or apartment complex. “But that's good advice, being careful after dark and…”

And becomes a look at the unknown blond woman who navigates by. Strange. The young teen shakes her head and pulls her focus around to their purpose.

A finger jabs at the menu overhead. “Those all sound really good. Do you… do you have any recommendations?” Squeaks looks at the clerk and grins, the bright and excited kind reserved for kids when they're trying to get dessert before supper. “Like, what… what's your favorite? Or is there something special you'd suggest?” Maybe something not on the menu?

“Hey, no drugs here,” Lance reassures her, hands up, “We’re clean.”

A step off to one side, glancing to the blonde behind him with a wry smile as Squeaks keeps talking. “Sorry, go for it, we’re just getting the lay of the land, figuring out the neighborhood, all that— “ He sweeps a hand towards the counter, gallantly surrendering his ‘spot’ in line. “Go ahead so we’re not holding you up.”

“Thanks, bub,” the blonde says as she steps around Lance and puts her snacks on the counter, then fishes out loose change and wadded up dollar bills and starts counting them. The woman behind the register hasn't started ringing anything up, because she's exasperatedly pointing at the menu while staring at Squeaks. “What we show is what we have.” The woman, noticing that the cashier is talking instead of ringing up, pulls out one noisy earbud.

True in my blood they say I'm better than you

You in the hood tryin’ to make past due

But from where I sit that ain't the same

Red dot you’re good, blue dot for life.

“The doner kebab’s really good,” she says, then looks to the cashier who angles an impatient look down at the blonde, and goes about ringing her up. “Don't let the name fool you. It's not spelled the same as it sounds.” The blonde says with a wrinkle of her nose, then looks back to the cashier and continues counting her money.

The cashier finishes punching in the handful of items and then turns the screen around to face the blonde woman. “$9.19,” for one box of ten Twinkie's and a pack of gum. Welcome to the economic hellscape of post-war America.

Slapping a handful of quarters and some balled up dollar bills on the counter, the blonde starts to count them out. “Uh… five… six…” she's out of bills and now counting quarters by the fours. “Seven… seven fifty…” And she's tapped out.

Why you wanna lock me up up up

Chains of words pinning my ass down down down

Red dot you're good, blue dot for life

Why we always gotta worry about blue


Lisa,” the cashier says sharply, “I can't go on credit again. Pay full price or nothing. You still owe me ten dollars for the coffee.” The blonde, Lisa, pushes her glasses up the bridge of her nose and starts turning her pockets inside-out frantically. Clearly embarrassed.

Emily's brow ticks as she overhears the music, thinks she places it. When the bud is pulled free and she can hear the lyrics more clearly, her gaze flits from the cashier to the woman trying to produce enough change for it. Watching the exchange, it feels like something grabs her by the gut.

Fuck it.

A debit card is slapped down on the counter, Emily leaving her thumb atop it for a moment longer. "I'll take her stuff and an order of kebabs, please." Shifting a glance toward the other blonde, Lisa, she gives a stiff shrug of one shoulder.

Every day I open up the paper

They findin’ a brand new way to fuck with me

I see us behind barbed wire fences

It ain't that far in the future to be

Squeaks’ attention drifts away from the cashier and settles on the woman that steps forward. Whatever frustration is being directed her way is ignored, or just unnoticed. She watches the stranger, head tipping to the side when she hears the music even more clearly than before. She’s not sure if it’s anything she’s heard.

“Thank you,” she says in quiet response to the information. Doner kebabs do sound a little strange, but she’s not picky about food.

Her eyes flick to her friends, and when Emily pulls out a card to pay for things, not just for the kebob order but also Lisa’s purchase, the youngest teen looks up at the latter of the two blondes again. “That’s really primal music you’re listening to,” she adds to the offer of payment.

Why you wanna lock me up up up

Chains of words pinning my ass down down down

Red dot you're good, blue dot for life

Why we always gotta worry about blue

“Yeah, is that Shard?” Lance’s head cocks a bit to one side as he tries to recognize the song, agreeing with Squeaks’ opinion, “Sounds kind’ve like him, I used to have some of his cassettes… good beat.”

He leans against one of the displays as Emily starts to pay for not only the blonde but also an order of kebabs, hands tucking in the pockets of his hoodie.

Lisa’s brows rise for a moment, she side-eyes Emily and makes a face that nearly conveys protest but never really gets that far. As the cashier begins to ring everything up, she takes her box of Twinkies and pack of gum, tucking the latter into a pocket. Meanwhile, the cashier goes over to the hot foods counter and starts pulling out meat from a rotisserie and then seasoned vegetables and a flatbread wrap.

I'm standin’ here myself no anyone else

Head down and put on ain't no Petrelli name gonna save me son

Why you wanna’ swing every time I rise

Because we blue and united nobody dies

“Thanks for doing me a solid,” Lisa says to Emily without much of an inquiry to the charity. Her attention flicks over at Squeaks and Lance, eyeing them for a moment as if she would comment on their appreciation of her music, but then her gaze flirts away and she turns for the automatic doors.

“Enjoy your kebab,” Lisa says as she tucks the earbud back into her ear. The cashier has returned, offering out a foil-wrapped burrito-like meat and veggie wrap to Emily.

"Pay it forward," is all that Emily suggests, not looking at the woman — Lisa — while she waits for her food. Lance had suggested coming in to eat, after all, so here they were. They might as well walk away with something for their efforts, even if it was a paid item. She takes the foil, nodding. "Yeah, take care."

Somewhat disinterestedly, she holds up the kebab and looks back to the two she came in with. "Want to find somewhere to eat this?" There was no way she was finishing it all herself.

She isn't normally one to turn down food, but something holds Squeaks’ curiosity tightly. Probably it's just the strangeness that's been happening all day but maybe also it's that look from Lisa that didn't even come with an answer. She shoots a look at Emily and Lance, and it's not hard to misinterpret any thoughts from the redhead.

Without a reply of her own, the youngest of the teens turns from the counter to follow Lisa. She doesn't run exactly, but she walks fast, purposeful, at least until the stranger is found and then she can follow lots more carefully.

As he’s looked at and then dismissed, Lance shrugs one shoulder with just a hint of disappointment — he doesn’t get to talk music with many people! — and then he’s tilting his head back to the door himself.

“Yeah, sounds good,” he allows easily, moving to follow Lisa to the door (there’s only one door!) as well, calling back, “Thanks for the four-one-one! We’ll keep it in mind.”

When Squeaks gets out of the bodega, at first it looks as though Lisa vanished into thin air. But a subsonic click pings off of something to Squeaks’ left, where she finds Lisa fumbling with keys to unlock the lobby door to the tenement building above the bodega, box of Twinkies tucked under one arm. Apparently she lives here. Once she's unlocked the door, Lisa pauses briefly on noticing the trio coming out of the shop to offer a nod of recognition, then slips into the tenement building, letting the door clack shut behind her.

The silence following the door closing is broken by the roar of a construction vehicle headed down the street and the crashing clatter of the huge truck hitting a pothole as it moves. The sound passes from one end of the street to another, and then there's just silence.

Not every mystery has an evident solution.

At least not right away.

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