“Alex.” Cam moved only his eyes as he spoke to me from his desk. His tone was unusual, a little quiet, as though he didn’t want to be overheard, but deliberately nonchalant. I moved closer.
He continued. “Just a bit of a heads-up.” His fingers kept moving on the keyboard. “The Administrators are going to want to see you in person about your first mission.”
“In person?” I echoed. “Where?”
“Their lower lounge on the 50th floor of the Central tower.” Something did seem to be eating him, I thought, though I wasn’t sure what it could be. “It’s a big one, very secret.”
“Oh? Really?” I wasn’t keen on meeting any Administrator again, let alone more than one, but if he was going to tell me in advance I’d get all the information out of him that I could.
“Yeah, really.” He shifted uncomfortably.
“Am I in trouble?”
“No… no, of course not. Alex…” He stopped typing and actually turned to look at me this time. “What would you say if I told you there were people living outside the Settlement?”
I laughed in his face.
He swiveled his chair, crossed his legs, and leaned back, elbows on the armrests, fingers steepled at his chin.
I eventually stopped laughing. He was staring at me rather drily.
“Oh… what, you’re serious??” I kept smiling.
He closed his eyes.
“No. No way. I mean, this is a test. Right? You’re testing me. Well, I’m not falling for it.” I fell back into my own chair.
“I’m just trying to prepare you a little in advance,” said Cam slowly. I don’t want you to be too shocked.”
I wasn’t capable of believing it. Not yet. “Look,” I said. “Even if there were, hypothetically, people living outside the Settlement—which is such a really obscure fringe idea, it’s almost Detractive – heck, it is Detractive – even if there were, I don’t see how they’d survive out there without any food or clean water. Plus, I don’t see how you’d know about it. You’ve never been outside the Wall.”
He just gave me a knowing look.
I was shocked. “You’ve never been outside the Wall, have you? Cam, you’ve never been outside the Wall?”
“No, I haven’t,” he said, and I was relieved for inexplicable reasons. “But there are other ways of knowing,” he said.
“Like what?” I said.
“Never mind,” he said. “It’s all classified anyways. You’ll find out when the Administrators tell you.”
When talking with superiors, it is usually advisable to put on the blankest face you possibly can, so that you can’t be accused of thinking anything.
I kept a poker face all the way up to the meeting room, trying to remember that I wasn’t in trouble.
The meeting room was above the one where I’d met the previous Administrator. That had been floor 30, the lowest of the Administration levels in the Central tower. Floor 30 was a general-access area where members of the public were allowed to meet with these top ranking officials. Anyone could go, but people seldom went without invitation.
I was headed to floor 50, which was off-limits to the public. It was yet another windowless area.
I was surprised when I was ushered into a room less like the empty conference room from my original meeting with the woman Administrator, and more like a DYNTEC lounge. That meant faux leather furniture and blocky stone coffee tables for the most part. There were three Administrators here, but one of them was at a reception-style desk, one of them was on a couch reading from a handheld screen, and only one of them was talking to me.
It may have been casual for them, but I was tense, not knowing what to expect.
“You can have a seat,” said this Administrator. I sat on one of the smooth cushioned chairs. It wasn’t the same woman from before – what had been her name? Morris-Fletcher? This one was a man in smart business casual. He was nearly nondescript in every way – smooth faced, Caucasian, good looking but unmemorable, like a walking photo composite.
“Alexandra,” he said to me, using my full given name, which rang oddly in my ears. “Do you believe in white lies?”
The unexpectedness of the question startled me. “Yes,” I said. “Of course.”
He picked up a white cup of coffee from the side-table and stirred it with a small stick. “Then you understand that it is sometimes necessary for an organization like DYNTEC to lie to the public.”
“Of course,” I said. “They’re an intelligence and military corporation. That’s simply the nature of the kind of organization it is.”
“Indeed, but what about their nature requires them to lie to the public?” he asked.
I struggled. I had never been good with the open-ended question and answer format, it was hard to tell what the correct thing to say was.
“Well,” I said, “security… security reasons. They— we— are responsible for taking down organized threats to society. When something threatens the world, you can’t always be open about that. You have to take care of threats with some prudence. If you announce your intentions, your enemy will get the first move.”
“That’s a good answer,” said the Administrator, whose name, as I could see from a nearby desk plaque, was Jamison.
“Tell me,” said Jamison placidly, “Are you loyal to the Settlement?”
This question had been asked me from time to time, and usually it was asked in a tone of accusation. I jumped fervently to my own defense.
“I love the Settlement,” I said. “I’d do anything for the settlement.”
Anything? I chided myself. Strong words for someone like me. Yet, I thought, I did love the Settlement. It was the same sentiment that had caused me to trade sandwiches with Morgan, even if it had been somewhat misguided at the time. While it was true that the good of the Settlement had been better served by everyone sticking to protocol, the desire to help other citizens of the Settlement was fundamentally good.
Still, deep in my heart I remembered begging to be reassigned from the food labs. I remembered being willing to say anything Payton asked me to when she had me over a barrel.
“…that I can,” I finished, less strongly.
He sipped his coffee. “Would your answer change if there were people living outside of the Settlement?”
I tensed. “No, not at all.”
“Then I have some news for you.”
The enormous, unspoken implications sat in the air between us for a long moment.
“Now that we’ve established that there are such things as beneficent lies,” said Administrator Jamison, “I must tell you a top-secret truth. You understand it is a vital matter of national security that no one becomes aware that there are people living outside of the Settlement.”
“I understand,” I said, and I did understand. “I presume they are enemies of the Settlement?”
“Very much so.” Jamison paused, took a last drink, and then set his cup back down with his fingers spread around the rim delicately.
“There is a cult located about 70 miles out from the Wall. We discovered them some time ago with our sat-cams. We believe they may be the descendants of Detractors who either left voluntarily, or were exiled some generations ago.”
Seeing my questioning gaze he added, “Yes, exile used to be a punishment used by the Settlement. We don’t do it anymore, for obvious reasons. Simply put, it’s too important not to have people running about compromising the purity of Gaia. That’s where you come in. We’ve got to bring them in. We want you to find out what their society is like. We need to know how many of them there are, what sort of weapons they have, and more information on their culture and beliefs. We have some limited information, but we need to know if it’s possible for them to be successfully reintegrated into the Settlement. The adults may prove too difficult, but we have hope for the children.”
“They have children out there?” I said, horrified.
“Yes, I know. And what’s more, their parents brainwash them to believe horrible things.”
People living outside the Settlement!
Something about the way he had said it (so different from the way Cam had said it) made me feel, instead of bewildered and skeptical, special and a little smug. It was real and I was in on the secret.
But the implications.
My heart ached imagining innocent children forced to grow up outside the safety of the Settlement, in a toxic wasteland, in unimaginably harsh conditions, without proper education, being abused and brainwashed by their parents. It was a strange idea; my own parents had never attempted to interfere in my education. Outside of the Settlement, they weren’t even connected to the sublevels, so kids would have to stay in one building all the time. It sounded awful.
“So. Will you do it?”
A request from an Administrator was a command I dared not refuse. However, I was surprised to realize that I was truly interested in doing this.
“Yes,” I said.
“Good,” said Jamison. “Cam will be working with you on this. He won’t be infiltrating the cult with you, but he’ll be your point of contact, and Jesse will supervise you both. Good luck.”