The man trembled behind the thick pane of glass. He was all sweat, from the crown of his shaved skull to where his lower half disappeared beneath the table, the sheen of the overhead fluorescence making the beads of his anxious perspiration glisten like the scales of a fish. Watching him from the far side of the one-way glass, it was hard for Ellie to imagine the man in the fishbowl as the strong, confident leader that his file claimed he was. She’d only ever handled ranch hands and truck drivers before, rural folk who’d never hope to convince anyone outside Chaves County of what they’d seen. But now some CEO was sweating through his shirt in her interrogation room and Ellie honestly wasn’t sure which of them was more frightened.
“What do you think, Carter?” asked Danvers, stepping back into the room. He was nursing a cup of muddy coffee and the shadowy stubble that always crept across his face during a lengthy interrogation was getting so long it was beginning to curl.
“I think the man’s had a hell of a night and we should let him rest an hour or two,” said Ellie. “He’s told us everything we want to hear, even the parts most victims shy away from. Why not treat him well for cooperating?”
Danvers smirked and leaned up against the glass. “Don’t go thinking that I want to do it any more than you, but both of us know what has to come next,” he said. “He’s not just some toothless hillbilly with a huffing habit, he’s a well respected member of society, the charismatic leader of a tech company. Christ, he’s already got fanatics hanging on his every word, what do you think they’re going to do when he comes back from a weekend in the desert babbling about aliens? Before you know it we’ll have another Strieber on our hands.” He turned back to Ellie, “Tell me, Carter, what happens then? What happens when the fellas upstairs learn that the prophet of a new-age of UFO speculation passed through our unit and we just—let him go?”
A crease formed between Ellie’s eyebrows. “But why can’t we just use the scrambler? It works on most of the folks who come back lucid.”
Danvers shook his head and dropped into the seat across from Ellie. She saw how tired he was then. It wasn’t the same as the exhaustion that came from being awake for the past thirty hours, it was something deeper. The fatigue he wore had been collected across two prolonged decades. A healthy portion might have come from nights like this, but there was much more to it. The photographs, the autopsies, the abductee’s accounts, they didn’t leave your mind the moment you set foot outside the office, Ellie knew that and she hadn’t even been on a full year. She could hardly imagine carrying around twenty-times what she’d seen thus far.
“Carter,” said Danvers, his cold gaze connecting with hers. “I’ve sat where you’re sitting now, wrestled with the same thoughts. Hell, I’d be lying if I told you that they still don’t run through my head now and then. But this isn’t an easy job. We’re not FBI or CIA or any other of those government meat-puppets the people upstairs use to play war with, we’re the real deal. There’s only one thing keeping this pale blue dot from collapsing in on itself, and that’s people like us. And if you want to remain one of those proud few,” he took the gun from his shoulder holster and laid it on the table, “Then you’re going to have to do what’s necessary.”
Ellie glanced down at the gun. “But—I’m not a full agent yet, I’m not even registered for the exams.”
“And I’ve already spoken to my superior about waiving them, with my recommendation of course.” Danvers slid the gun across the table until it was right in front of Ellie. “You’re too damned smart to be doing glorified secretary work, you already know more than most field operatives will forget. If I’m being completely frank, I could see you in my position someday, and that’s not a statement I make lightly.”
A jolt of pride leapt through Ellie when she heard that, despite the dour circumstances.
“The only thing that concerns me,” Danvers went on. “Is your lack of resolve. I need people who can stare, unflinching in the face of brutal necessity. Keeping Pandora’s box locked tight is our number one priority and I need people who won’t let anything get in the way of that.”
Ellie stared back down at the pistol and swallowed hard. She’d spat over ten thousand rounds through a gun just like it back when she’d been FBI, a few of them had even found their way into people. But that was different. Those men had broken laws, disrupted order, been violent themselves. All the man in the fishbowl had done was pop a few mushrooms in the desert with some old college buddies and be in the wrong place at the wrong time when a scout from ten light-years away had dropped by looking for test subjects. “And what if I don’t?” she finally asked, nodding at the gun. “You going to turn that thing on me?”
The agent’s eyes softened. Perhaps it was an illusion brought on by the lack of sleep, but Ellie thought for a moment that he looked genuinely hurt. “Christ,” muttered Danvers, “You must think I’m a goddamn monster.”
“I’m just saying that if we’re offing him because of how much he knows, why wouldn’t we off me too? I know exactly where we are, the people that work here, knowledge of how the Program works–”
“Except no one would listen to you,” Danvers shot back at her. “Didn’t you find it odd when you got a job offer from another federal agency just a month after being dishonorably discharged from the Bureau? We only take in those we can easily discredit, and with your record, Carter, we could write you off faster than a tax deduction. You might reinforce the beliefs of a few conspiracy nuts before the media moved on from you, but our friend over there? He’d be the goddamn story of year.” He pointed back toward the fishbowl, but didn’t move his cold, cobalt eyes from where they had locked on Ellie’s. “So you can cause a stir if you like, bleat your story to the wind before fading into a footnote. Or you can go in there and patch up the dam that keeps chaos from bleeding into the world. Up to you.”
Ellie looked back at the man beyond the glass and recalled the brother she’d read about in his case file, the pregnant girlfriend, the mother in the nursing home. Then she saw the sweat, as thick on his skin as stars against the night, the panic that twisted his brow, the hysteria in his eyes. He was an omen, a sign of the madness that would come if Danvers and the rest of the Program failed. It was the sort of madness that only men who’d been drug kicking and screaming from Plato’s cave and forced to stare into the sun would know. Madness in it’s purest form, madness made of both ignorance and sudden, begrudging epiphany.
Ellie’s hand was steady as she walked into the fishbowl. It was steady when she raised it to the back of the man’s skull, and when he pleaded through his tears. It was only when she pulled the trigger and a soft click took the place of the bang that should have been, that her hand began to shake.
The man chained to the chair and table breathed a sigh of cool relief. He’d stopped trembling and when he craned back over his shoulder to look at her, he was smiling. “You don’t mess around, do you?”
“W-what?” Ellie fumbled at the magazine release, letting the clip drop from the butt of the gun. It was empty.
Across the fishbowl, the mirrored wall became a window. On it’s far side Danvers was grinning. “Congratulations, Agent Carter,” his voice boomed over the intercom. “You just passed your exam.”