Art by Richard Gung
A trumpet softly plays.
Hundreds are gathered around the cemetery, a sea of black surrounding a covered casket. Heads are bowed and cameras are snapping.
A priest, dressed up in gallant white and red, mumbles a sermon about hope and tolerance and a bright future for all those whose souls are saved. The people listen with the appearance of great reverence, whether that be real or feigned.
Behind him, a row of wrinkled men stand solemnly. Prominent businessmen, politicians, anyone with connections enough to get in where the cameras will see. These are the people he surrounded himself with, the types of men worthy enough to gain his respect.
But these men aren’t it. They’re the stand-ins, the puppets, the faces.
Donald Blyth was the face, too, once. But now that’s gone.
Donald Blyth, all his life single and unmarried, except to his work. Donald Blyth, an innovator who will never be forgotten, a great capitalist who forged a nation. Donald Blyth, a hero against terrorism who gave his life to protect the city of Atlanta.
It’s a ceremony celebrating him, and yet, despite the words, despite the mourning, it feels like nothing of the sort.
There are no quiet sobs or tear stained faces. Everyone wears a pained face with glazed-over eyes, but it’s all for show. The atmosphere isn’t mournful, but dutiful. The people here are dressed in their saddest clothes and bow their heads in silence, and it feels less like a funeral than a movie set.
It’s all a show of force against an eco-terror group. Donald Blyth wasn’t some beloved man. He was a ruthless businessman involved with some serious allegations of criminal activity. This entire funeral, this business of hundreds of would-be mourners gathering to remember a man they’d rather not, comes exclusively from the politics and the optics of the event.
Except for those men and women who have come for a different purpose.
Those men and women that, at this very moment, stand in the crowd and wait patiently while the priest prattles on. They’ve waited this long already: a few more minutes won’t hurt them.
Interim Mayor Ruby Rhodes is here, wearing a dark burgundy pantsuit and standing center crowd, vibrant against all the funeral suits around her. She’s standing out. Why wouldn’t she? She’s the mayor, after all.
But Mayor Rhodes isn’t it, either. She wants to be it, but she’s not. She’s a climber without a harness.
It would be a cliche to say the people worth looking at are going to be the most inconspicuous of the bunch. But that’s exactly how it will play out.
The priest raises an arm and calls everyone to pray. About half the people turns their heads down, with the rest continuing to face forward. And then some further still turn their heads and face some central location. They aren’t religious. They aren’t even here for the funeral. They’re here to communicate.
Men and women in black, with graying hair and pitch-gray faces, look at one another. Wordlessly, without expression. A dozen of them or more, blinking and staring in each other’s directions.
And then the priest finishes his prayer, and those people look back to him, and the rest in the crowd raise their heads and let the funeral continue in all its grand ceremony.
The casket is being lowered into the hole in the ground, where it will sit for the rest of time under the dirt, a time capsule of death for some future species to discover in half a million years.
And at the same time, some of those men and women begin to file out of the crowd, returning to their cars and limousines. They will be met by their escort of bodyguards, of servants or personal drivers. And, before the traffic of the post-funeral rush to the Varsity begins, they will exit the cemetery and make their way back to wherever they came.
With none the wiser, they have made their plan and will now be carrying it out.
Except that they don’t know the full picture.
They aren’t aware that there are others at this funeral that are tracking their every move. Others who have come of their own accord specifically to search them out.
They aren’t aware of the young black man with a computer embedded in his skull, recording everything he sees for future evidence. They don’t know that his brain is racing to analyze their faces, to make a permanent record of their existence here.
They aren’t aware of the Japanese girl with a tiny earpiece radio, reporting what she sees with a careful whisper. They don’t know someone so cute and disarming could pose a threat to them, much less do so right in front of their faces.
And they certainly aren’t aware of the young black girl planting tracking devices on their vehicles. They don’t know that she’s dashing nimbly on the outskirts of the graveyard, avoiding security and literally snickering as she gets away with it.
The only one they’re aware of is the one who’s standing precariously by a tree, away, from the funeral and the priest spreading dirt on the casket, staring intently at the scene from afar. That one’s bait for the rest of the team. That’s me.
A bodyguard steps up to me and whispers for me to please pay attention to the funeral, to keep my respect for Donald Blyth. I apologize and turn back around.
With a smirk, I walk away from the funeral. These gray-faced, gray-haired men and women leave the event and go back to wherever they crawled out from, completely unaware that a bunch of kids just pulled one over on them.
Whoever the Ascendants are, we’re about to find out.