“Ah, Mr. Knight,” said the doorman with a jovial tone. “I thought I might expect you today.”
“Always a pleasure, Robert,” said Gregor, nodding to the sharply-dressed man. “I hope I was invited.”
“Of course, I’m sure you were. Who’s the guest?” The doorman nodded my direction.
“My nephew. He wants to get into politics. I figured I’d introduce him to one or two influential people while we’re here.”
Robert let out a laugh and leaned in towards me. He winked conspiratorially and said, “Politics? It’s a dirty business, but someone has to do it.”
Gregor stepped past the doorman with a sardonic expression and beckoned me. I gave him a jaunty salute as I followed.
“Just doing my civic duty,” I told him.
The interior of the convention center had been furnished in a lavish style, gilded with the white, green, and gold motif of Virtue. A large area had been left clear for guests to mingle. Tables were scattered across another area near the wall, where a buffet steamed enticingly. A crowd had already gathered in the area clear of tables, and the sounds of idle chatter filled the convention hall.
Too many people, I thought. Too close together. Too much breathing.
I hesitated at the thought of entering such a crush of people. My hands felt odd, stiff and clammy.
Individual people I can handle, not… this.
Gregor split off into the crowd without a word to mingle with the other guests, and I could feel the mark I’d left on him weaving through the throngs, but I continued to hesitate.
How to even start?
I looked into the crowd. The guests milled about lazily, at ease with the oppressive heat of so many people breathing. To me, a windy day could be loud, but a crowd of people was just overwhelming. I took a deep breath myself and tried to ignore the noise.
Time for another experiment.
I touched as many people as possible as I pushed through the crowd, leaving tiny black splotches on black suits. If things go bad, I want to have as many options as possible. I walked with my eyes straight ahead as if I was making my way towards someone, and nobody questioned me.
I blend right in, I realized. As long as things were going according to plan, I wasn’t a spy trying to infiltrate a party, I was one of the partygoers myself. I relaxed into the role a bit, somehow managing to filter out the ambient noise, or at least ignore it to a degree.
I stepped clear of the press of bodies and stood for a moment, eyes closed. My awareness of the crowd opened up as I tried to track the marks I’d left, getting an idea of the flow of people. I could feel the way groups formed and scattered, people being pulled into one conversation, or leaving another. Some people stood in one place, while some were migratory, travelling from group to group trying to find somewhere to perch. It was a dizzying amount of information-
“A little overwhelming isn’t it?” came a female voice from behind me, interrupting my thoughts.
I turned to see a girl, or maybe a woman, clearly younger than myself but with a maturity in her posture that suggested she was older than she looked.
“It’s my first time at one of these events,” I replied.
“Trust me, the glamour fades,” she said, voice dry. “My dad drags me to all of these. I don’t know why he bothers. I don’t buy into the ideology. After a while you realize that everyone’s only here for selfish reasons.” She paused for a moment. “You’re not one of the bigwigs kids, are you?”
I grinned despite myself. This is my game. “What gave me away?”
“Wait, let me guess.” She scrutinized my face. “You’re a spy,” she said, half joking.
I laughed, surprised at how close she’d gotten to being right.
Something’s not right. An odd feeling crept down my spine, making me uneasy.
I spoke with feigned humor. “You’re pretty close. My uncle’s Gregor Knight- the banker. Being his usual paranoid self, he wants to investigate the Virtue national branch to see if there was any… I think he actually said ‘conspiracy.'” I said the idea like it was absurd.
Why am I telling her this?
She laughed now. “Sounds like a fun little mystery.”
I felt the urge to laugh again, but hesitated. My head swam as the feeling redoubled, and I came to a realization.
She’s an empath!
“Oh shoot, I’m being rude, aren’t I?” she said. “I’m so sorry. Most people don’t notice it; I don’t even notice when it’s on…” She screwed up her eyes for a moment and the giddiness faded.
“You’re a Metahuman,” I said out loud, dumbfounded.
“Yeah,” she said, ducking her head bashfully. “You can probably guess why I don’t exactly see eye-to-eye with my dad. I know there’s like, a law or something, but I can’t control it! I don’t see why I should go to jail for making people happy.”
“Well, it is a massive invasion of privacy,” I said, more crossly than intended.
“No, don’t be mad, I’m sorry,” she apologized.
I let out a breath, forcing myself to relax. “I understand. I can’t imagine what it’s like, not being in control like that.”
She looked sad for a moment, then brightened suddenly. “I never introduced myself. I’m Amélie.”
Shit, a name. I need a name.
“Arthur,” I said.
“I gotta go, my dad will want me back by now,” she said. “The speechifying is gonna start soon.”
“I guess I’ll get back to snooping for my uncle, then,” I said with a half-smile. “Say hi to your dad for me.”
“Oh, he’ll be furious I got out of his sight at all. He’s way too overprotective. I’m an adult now -you know, legally. He doesn’t have to baby me,” she complained, before turning and heading back into the crowd.
A few moments later, a slender black woman stepped up to the podium at the front of the convention hall and spoke into the microphone.
“Please remain standing for the national anthem,” she said as a line of men and women in black suits and dresses entered the convention center. “Ladies and gentlemen, the Collswell City Choral Collective!”
They sang an arrangement of ‘The Star Spangled Banner,’ then launched into a Newfoundland folk tune as the guests collectively migrated to the buffet. I followed the crowd and piled a plate with food- despite my preoccupation, I was hungry, and I wasn’t about to pass up the delicious-looking catering.
I reached the end of the buffet and looked around at the tables. There was nobody I recognized, and I couldn’t find Gregor, despite his unusual appearance.
Woah, flashback to high school, I thought, then picked a table near the podium. The only other guests at the table of choice were an elderly couple loaded down with expensive-looking clothing and jewelry. Wealthy patrons, I assumed. I turned my chair towards the podium, turning my back to the majority of the room in the process.
I eyeballed the distance to the podium as I ate. Is that less than 25 feet? Probably. Only a few moments after I sat, Gregor joined me.
“How’s the party so far?” he asked.
Small talk for the benefit of the others at the table? Or does he want me to tell him? I hedged my bets.
“Interesting enough,” I said. “Overwhelming. Loud. Oh, and I met a girl.”
He raised an eyebrow -the one over his one, yellow eye- and remained silent.
“Not like that,” I said, shooting him an exasperated look. “I think-” I glanced behind me at the elderly couple, who were cheerfully ignoring us, and leaned in to speak more quietly. “-I think she was a Metahuman. An empath.”
“Well, that is interesting,” he said. “Did she give a name?”
“Yeah, she said Amélie, but I don’t know if that’s her real name. Didn’t get a last name either.”
“You are a suspicious one, aren’t you?” Gregor remarked.
“And you are surprisingly wry, given your reputation,” I countered.
Gregor let out a short laugh. “I am that. I suppose it’s only fair I share what I found out. I-”
The woman at the podium spoke again as the singers finished, and Gregor cut himself off. “Allow me to introduce the head of Virtue, Pierce Honnete!”