The year after the Tragedy, his last in college, Woodbern was invited to a one-way party. You were supposed to leave at a specified time from the nearest subway station on a one-way ticket to the end of a designated line, too far to return in time for curfew. From there, groups would continue on foot to an encampment between disused warehouses and storage silos, or further, into desiccated fields scored by train tracks. These were protests, not parties, even if there happened to be a DJ. BYOS, though most substances had already been consumed by the time protesters reached their departure platforms.
He had shared a bowl with a former roommate, his roommate’s girlfriend, and the girlfriend’s younger sister, a prospective. Alison, the younger sister, had claimed she’d never smoked before, but she was a quick study with the pipe and lighter. She passed to him, stretching her legs toward the center of their circle. The eagle’s head skulking from the lighter case perched, in his line of vision, on shoulders draped in Varsity volleyball fleece. Alison was 17. His eyes filled with the orange light of his inhalation.
At 10:45, a text message summoned them to Cibola, the last stop on the Gold Line. Alison stumbled slightly as they approached the stop and linked arms with him, their fingers insinuating as they took the escalator down to the ticket machines. She gave his hand a squeeze as he bought their tickets.
He felt an oncoming train in his chest and stomach. As Alison babbled in his ear, the noise continued to surge through the bench they shared and into his stationary body. A moment passed, then another. The track ahead remained empty. He tried to look in the direction of the noise but found he couldn’t move his head. He felt the platform recede as he managed to shift slightly in his seat. Move your left knee, thought Woodbern. The command seemed to dissipate into the reticulated walls overhead. Move your left knee, he thought again. From the far edge of an infinite expanse, he felt Alison’s hand drag him toward a set of sliding doors.
He would be fine if he could just sit down. He sat down. He recognized friends from campus, but their conversation stilted through the pulse of his organs, which ebbed the longer the train lingered.
“Good evening,” said a man in burgundy corduroy slacks and a flannel shirt. “My name is Officer Jacobs and my partner’s name is Officer Byrne. Please present your tickets for inspection.” A muffled groan circulated as Officer Byrne withdrew a chain from under his collar, the end of which bore a Transport Police badge. His Armchair Messiahs T-shirt looked freshly printed; the band’s orange insignia was set off in sharp contrast by the crisp indigo of the officer’s jeans.
Move your left knee, thought Woodbern as the officers reached the middle of the car. The beam of a penlight strafed his eyes. The car vanished. From somewhere in the curtain of afterglow, he heard Officer Jacobs. “Tickets,” he said.
Move your left knee, thought Woodbern, concentrating all he could of his axons and dendrites to a point somewhere in front of his chest. The officer’s fingers formed a hook at eye level. Woodbern felt his own hand crawl to the rim of his shirt pocket. His fingers dabbed at the seam of a deepening vacancy.
The penlight stopped at his violently jogging knee. Jacobs smirked toward his partner. “Everything OK, sir?” he asked.
Woodbern nodded, wordlessly, and felt the stiff edge of the ticket. Jacobs tore it from his fingers and barely looked before proceeding to the last seat of the car.
“Tickets,” he said, looking down at a young woman and man huddled at either side of clustered canvas bags. They avoided eye contact as both officers stopped in front of them.
“Excuse me? Miss? No Ingles? Boleto. Boleto.”
“She understands,” said the man, looking up. “We both do. We bought tickets just like everybody else. We just can’t find them.”
Byrne turned to Jacobs. “That’s odd.”
“What?” asked Jacobs.
“They say they understand English. But they don’t seem to understand the word for ticket.”
“My mom’s sick,” said the young woman. “She can’t take care of herself.”
“See what I mean?” said Byrne. “That sounded like English to me.”
“Me too,” said Jacobs.
“But that doesn’t have a shit’s worth to do with where their tickets are.”
“You’re right. That is odd.”
The man pointed at the officers in turn. “I’ve noted both your badge numbers and I’m filing a complaint. This is harassment.” The woman grabbed his elbow and pulled his arm back.
Jacobs scratched at his temple. “There it is again.”
“I know, right? English.”
Jacobs pondered a moment over crossed arms. “The decent thing to do would be to help them find their ticket.”
“You read my mind. We wouldn’t want to keep Mom waiting.” Brady lifted one of the canvas bags carefully by the straps and looked inside before upending it over the floor of the car. “See it?” he asked.
Jacobs took his time, kicking at a head of lettuce and crushing each of three tomatoes under the sole of his shoe. “Nothing.”
Byrne shook his head as he spilled the contents of each sack at their feet. The rest of the car was silent through the topple of jars, bags, and paper parcels to the floor. When the bags were empty, Byrne reached for an ornately stitched purse wedged behind the woman’s back. This he upended as well; over the scatter of pens, tissues, and small change, a wallet phone slid next to Woodbern’s foot. The phone skittered back from the vibration of an incoming call. The screen filled with a woman’s face, straining to smile over the cannula fed through her nostrils. Byrne threw the purse into a puddle of egg yolks. “Gosh darn it,” he lamented to his partner.
“Easy, bro,” Jacobs said. “We’ll just have to find another way to help these people.”
“We don’t need—” Byrne’s collapsible truncheon pressed at the woman’s throat before she could finish. She struggled as Byrne dallied over the voltage control. She looked toward the man. He stared back, saying nothing. She stopped.
“Get up,” said Jacobs. The couple was dragged to their feet, one to each officer.
The platform lights began to blink. Woodbern made it through the doors just as they started to close. Others followed, careful of where they stepped.
Woodbern reached the apex of Arcadia and Glyn Cagny, where he waited for the signal to cross. From his position on the crowded corner, the dimpled PED XING button shone black, reflecting the face of the Tragedy Memorial. For several moments, crosstown traffic swelled in the monolith’s expanse.
He cleared Security, reaching the elevator bank just as the doors of a waiting car started to close. The flat screen overhead broadcast a sharp exchange between experts.
“Is it your contention,” enunciated the host, “that this behavior is, in fact, acceptable?”
The respondent set down his water glass. “That’s not at all what I’m saying. But the more such incidents are reported—and all evidence points to them proliferating—the less they look like garden variety desecrations.” He raised a hand preemptively. “For the pew soiler, desecration is secondary.”
He had not noticed the woman at the panel of illuminated numbers, the only other passenger in the car. She availed herself of a commercial break to ask for Woodbern’s floor. “Eighteen,” he said, answered in turn by the clatter of plastic. Felt-tip markers rolled at his feet as the car ascended. Woodbern gathered as many as he could, pulled to a crouch at the woman’s feet. As she apologized, Woodbern saw the vine tattooed around her ankle. “Ultra?” He braced both hands against the rising floor.
MK Ultra raised a finger to her lips. “Here, I’m just plain old K.” She indicated the cobalt visitor pass clipped to the waist of her skirt.
Ultra’s talent as a performer was strictly situational. Before Dreamland, her stage work was limited to bit parts—maids, cigarette girls, the mute presence anchoring a production’s verisimilitude. She excelled in musicals as the object of serenades, alternately coy and alluring, skeptical and smitten. By number’s end, the leads were rapt to her mimicry of attention. They circled, helpless, at cast parties, until exhaustion drove them home, unless they were among the select admitted to Ultra’s stifling walkup near City Centre. There, beneath the rumble of window units, they consummated the vision glanced askance not hours before. They started with the lights on, probing the divots left behind by corsets and costume jewelry, the astringent pallor of colorless cheeks. They finished in darkness, veiling Ultra’s retreat somewhere far upstage.
Escutcheon had hired her to run a focus group. She would be paid handsomely for a morning of two-hour sessions taking down the concerns of Readers, Interpreters, and Ancillary Staff on the question of “Safe and Collegial Workspace: Viable or Oxymoron?” Helpfully, the Escutcheon Board had already provided the answer (definitely Viable); still required was documentation of concern with employee opinion. The sheets of easel pad noting survey responses would scroll to dust in a subterranean archive, while a voice recognition tech in Human Resources harvested data from the recording chip embedded in Ultra’s fused glass pendant.
“I’m a Reader,” Woodbern mused, recalling no notice or invitation.
Ultra’s heels crossed the intervening tiles of the slowing car. “Are you jealous?” She smoothed his tie and loosed the dropped markers from his hands. He forgot to answer as the doors of the car opened. He did not forget the sway of Ultra’s pencil skirt as she coaxed the straps of her tote further along her shoulder, crossed to the opposite elevator bank, and tapped repeatedly at a button for the lower floors.
Gina’s hair smelled like gin and tonic. They were practicing the Twin Cubs on Woodbern’s bed. For the last few nights, they had pored together over Tactile Therapy slides in preparation for her next qualifying exam. It was either this or shopping for Leslie and Ben.
“Who?” asked Woodbern, looking up from one of Gina’s thick maroon binders.
Gina seemed to ignore him as she toweled the ends of her hair. “Very funny. They only invited us months ago.”
“They’re the ones getting married at the All-Mart?”
“You make it sound like something to be ashamed of.” She took a brush to her hair. “Leslie showed me the floor plan. It’s not like they’re sticking them in any old aisle. They’re getting the Gazebo Room. And swans for the koi pond for practically nothing.”
The various positions had names like Bear’s Den, Winter Burrow, Spring Thaw. They locked limbs in imitation of the black-and-white schematics, a veritable Kama Sutra of therapeutic embraces. They had finished the Caring poses and started the Sharing. Gina arranged herself parallel to Woodbern. Woodbern, lying on his side, threaded his left arm under Gina’s but came to rest too high, against her breasts. She tensed slightly and told him to loosen his arm. She lowered his elbow until it came to rest above her navel; Woodbern felt her torso rise and fall through a cycle of deep breaths. With each exhalation, he was drawn closer to her left ear. He didn’t realize he was breathing in tandem until strands of her hair, loosened in their maneuvers, peeled off the pillow and stuck to his nostrils.
“I thought JB said dancers couldn’t drink,” Woodbern said, flinching slightly at the smell of singed lemons.
“I wasn’t,” Gina insisted, then she remembered the birthday party that had ended her shift. The party hadn’t been especially rambunctious, but the birthday boy had spilled most of his free cocktail mid-lap dance. He apologized profusely and was reaching for his wallet when the bouncer arrived to haul him off. “It’s weird. I still had ice chips in my bra when the bouncer just showed up. Like he knew to be there before anything happened.” She pressed a handful of slightly damp curls to her face. “Still? I washed it twice.”
“It’s nothing,” Woodbern said, even as the smell seemed to lodge solidly at the back of his throat. He swallowed and nuzzled, eliciting exasperated laughter.
“Bunny! This won’t work if you keep trying to get in my pants.” She brushed a bare foot against his ankle and returned to her parallel pose.
“Isn’t the real exam on mannequins?”
“Enhanced mannequins.” Gina shifted slightly away and then linked fingers over Woodbern’s elbow. “The sensors deduct for every missed pressure point. Twice as much if you hit an erogenous zone.” She looked down her nose in accusation, then set her gaze on the light fixture overhead. “So…feel like telling me anything?”
Woodbern stared into Gina’s ear, blurred by proximity. He swallowed again, this time against a metallic taste somewhere near his tonsils. He was midway through his annual re-reading of The Satterfield Scenario and eager to return as soon as they were done. The last known work of Francis Tybald, diplomat, best-selling author, and reputed Cold War spymaster, the novel was left incomplete at the time of Tybald’s disappearance late in the past century. The manuscript, lightly edited, was nevertheless published; completists like Woodbern kept it in circulation. The Master, as he was simply known among fans, had finished all but Chapter 0 in a sequence counting down the efforts of rival spy networks to foil or foster the titular Scenario. Satterfield was unique in Tybald’s oeuvre—and the genre at large—for its forking structure and absence of protagonists. The action, such as it was, developed collectively in the accumulation of chapters narrating simultaneous events across all seven continents. Adding to the confusion was Tybald’s insistence on treating his characters like pieces in an elaborate game, identified by initials or generic descriptors forming a tenuous frame around shadowy presences. D in Geneva places a long-distance call at the end of Chapter 19. Chapter 18 begins with a ringing phone in a suburb of Washington, DC. Is the gardener outside the house screening his calls? Or is he counting the number of rings before the caller hangs up? Is this the completion of the previous chapter or a wrong number? Continuity is implied but never confirmed. The reader emerges squinting, not from darkness, but an excess of illumination. The closer Woodbern got to the end, the slower he made his progress to the concluding nullity. There were three schools of thought on Tybald’s last work. The first credited happenstance—age, exhaustion, frustration with a dwindling audience. The second suspected conspiracy, sounding the text for fictional clues to actual secrets that would never survive the author’s vanishing. The third, and most heretical, saw intention of a more singular nature, culminating in a work complete in its incompletion, a vista of scaffolding and sodden tarps giving shape to what belied even the modest comfort of designation as “The End.”
Woodbern traced the curvature of Gina’s ear, unsettled all at once by its asymmetry, the swell of down on the tragus.
“Tomorrow is how many years?”
Woodbern looked outside, where the sky still preserved a diluted slick of light. He did the math, sighed, rolled away.
“There’s nothing wrong with remembering.”
“How old would she be?”
The only image he had of his mother was a grainy black-and-white photograph. A woman in profile, well-dressed, dark hair. Gloved hands, perhaps folded in contemplation, perhaps not. He remembered a hat but couldn’t be sure if this was from an actual keepsake or his father’s lecture notes on the Kennedy administration.
“Can we talk about something else?” He heard Gina sit up. He began to apologize but was stopped short by the squeeze of legs over his hips. They kissed obliquely, turning towards each other. She drew his hands under her shirt; the skin of her belly felt warm.
“Someone’s starting to feel better,” Gina said, reaching into his pocket. She leaned in but abruptly stopped. Her hand emerged around a pink plastic marker.
St. Odile’s was quiet enough that Woodbern thought his empty stomach would draw the attention of the cathedral’s lone supplicant, a veiled silhouette several rows ahead. She continued her rosary undisturbed as Woodbern churned in vacancy. If he was quick, he could catch the next train back to Escutcheon before the Security window closed for the afternoon. He approached the life-size Pietà that served as backdrop for a niche of electric candles. Mary’s downcast eyes took in the corpse of her fallen Son, all the while admonishing viewers not to forget the coin slot for donations. Woodbern reached for his wallet; in memory, he saw his father making the same gesture, his tie smeared with Russian dressing from the deli where they occasionally shared lunch. He would withdraw two bills without checking their denominations, and fold them into fourths. Mr. Woodbern handed them to his son, who unfailingly stated the obvious, long after he knew better. “Mom’s not dead.” Mr. Woodbern nodded, saying nothing, and waited. Woodbern pushed the money through the slot and pressed the button of the farthest candle within reach, holding the pads of his fingers over the artificial wick as long as his father allowed.
“You hear that?” The speaker addressed Woodbern from an adjacent seat in the darkened nave.
Woodbern replaced his wallet. “Sorry?”
“You hear that?” the voice repeated. Part of a face emerged in a smear of stained glass.
“For fuck—” Woodbern’s former Escutcheon supervisor lowered his voice. “For fuck’s sake, Woodbern. Remember where the fuck you are!” The veiled matron turned aside in the direction of their whispers. “Sit down. But not next to me.” The Zackster surveyed the nave, swiveling his view methodically from one aisle to the opposite, then back again.
Woodbern took a seat behind him.
“Get on the kneeler. Like you’re saying penance.” Zack seemed to labor for breath as he spoke, even though he was whispering.
Woodbern propped his hands on the back of the seat ahead, folding them together as he leaned forward. “They said you were transferred overseas.”
“I was.” Zack paused but didn’t elaborate. “Have you been followed?”
“Followed? By who?”
He shook his head. “Never mind. There’s not much time. They’ll find me soon enough. They’ll find both of us.”
“Are you alright?” Woodbern asked. “Do you need something? Money?”
“I need you to listen.” The Zackster pivoted his head ninety degrees and scanned the distant cupola. He coughed or maybe chuckled. “All this time, I thought the Board were good old-fashioned church boys. You ever notice we never bugged a church? Probably not. You’re the Workhorse. Woodbern the Workhorse. That’s what they called you.”
He ignored the question and faced the tabernacle. “All this time, I thought it was scruples. Some weird sign of respect. But they just haven’t figured out how to do it. Escutcheon’s best and brightest. Beaten by a thousand-year-old architectural design.” The Zackster sat rigidly back in his seat. “What about them peepers, Woodbern?”
“What about them?”
“Are you seeing anything? When you’re not at the console?”
Woodbern stared down at his hands. The periphery of his vision felt strangely blank, unblinkered by the axes of his touchscreen. “I take the mandatory breaks. Eye drops after every shift. Just like you said in Orientation.”
“I think it’s in the eye drops.”
“What are you talking about?”
“Assessment is ongoing.” Zackster raised his left hand. His palm was cupped around a small black case that opened into square halves. The top half was empty and lined with a black insulating foam. The bottom held a small illuminated screen. The screen was divided into dark quadrants, which were further divided by concentric green circles. Radiating from the screen’s dead center was a rotating yellow segment. Woodbern watched the digits in the upper right quadrant advance fifteen seconds as the segment’s endpoint traced a quarter of the outer circle’s circumference. “The outer circle is real time. If you’re lucky, you’ll never have to bother with the others.” He checked the screen. “You remember Bentham’s Blind Spot?”
Woodbern, a skilled test taker, briefly relished being asked a question he could answer. “It’s the last known obstacle to comprehensive surveillance. You told me that in Console Training.”
“And what’s the only conceivable way of avoiding Bentham’s Blind Spot?”
“The camera would have to be everywhere at once. Practically…sentient.”
A pair of red dots appeared just inside the outer circle. “I’m leaving something for you.” He indicated an oxblood satchel slumped against the corner of his seat.
“What are those dots?”
The Zackster ignored him. “Take it with you to Escutcheon. Security won’t find it—as long as you never open it. The frequency’s too low. That’ll buy us some time.”
The red dots were closer to the center now; two more pairs had appeared from the edges of the lower quadrants.
“Don’t follow me out. Count to one hundred, take the satchel, and then leave.” He snapped the black case shut and laid it next to the satchel. He tapped the case twice with his finger. “This tells you if you’re being tailed. Though there’s nothing you can do about it.”
“Tailed?” Woodbern felt the word on his tongue as he watched the stained-glass niches darken overhead. The Zackster kept repeating something urgently through gritted teeth.
“Woodbern. This is serious. How long until Security closes the afternoon admissions window?”
Woodbern checked his watch. “Twenty minutes.”
“That’s enough. You’ll do fine. Just remember—”
“Never open the satchel.” It was still there, next to the closed black case, when he heard the heavy wooden doors close behind him. He turned around. The seats behind him were empty. He reached for the case, recalling the red dots hovering at the screen’s periphery, when a sharp intake of breath drew his attention forward. The veiled woman spoke insistently into the space in front of her; with one hand, she held herself steady as with the other, she seemed to administer a sort of penance or blessing at angles along her torso. Her words were indistinguishable from breath as their pace accelerated. Woodbern moved to stand when he was stopped by a sudden noise. The spaces around him seemed to resonate with the grind of gears. The sound gathered to a point somewhere in the vicinity of his feet. From beneath the raised kneeling pad, a cylindrical massager rolled to a stop against his shoes. It glanced off the scuffed leather, propelled by battery power across a length of dusty marble before the dip in the floor drew it back to repeat its trajectory.
The line at the entrance to Hygeia Station was slowed by a mother and son. The mother waited until the turnstiles to search for her train pass, all the while arguing by phone with the hostility usually reserved for blood relations. The boy, looking bored, ran his wrist back and forth under the took a pull of coffee from a sleeved cup. “Ma’am?” he prompted. The mother told her interlocutor on the phone to wait while she wrangled her attendant’s scanner, entranced by the green filaments of light traced over his skin. The attendant cast his eye on the growing line behind them as he son’s neck under the scanner. The screen overhead displayed the discounted fare as the turnstile opened to admit them.
The train platform was empty when Woodbern arrived. He withdrew the black case from his pocket. The strap of the satchel dug into his shoulder as he cautiously opened the case. The satchel’s oxblood skin showed vividly against the gray platform.
The monitor inside was blank. He tapped the screen several times, held it at various angles to the fluorescent lights overhead.
“I don’t think that’s going to work.” Woodbern looked up. The speaker was standing over him, his head twisted slightly to the right as he eyed the dormant screen, an unlit cigarette between his lips.
“Guess not,” Woodbern answered. He closed the case.
His companion on the platform took the cigarette out of his mouth and pointed it towards Woodbern. “Know what you got there?”
Woodbern studied the man more closely. He was young, maybe slightly younger than Woodbern, studiously bohemian in tweed and denim. One lapel of his sport coat was held down by an adhesive nametag, introducing him as Virgil. Nametags had become fashionable after the Tragedy as a kind of tacit protest; with the proliferation of surveillance cameras, some sought to demonstrate their absurdity by embracing it, whether pseudonymously or not.
Woodbern leaned away and peered into the vacant tunnel. “I’m running late. I really don’t—”
Virgil, if that was his real name, raised his hands and backed off a few steps. “Didn’t mean to pry. I’m a collector. I notice things. That’s some serious vintage shit.”
“This? This was…a gift.”
“Then you’re one lucky son of a bitch.” He approached Woodbern. “Does it run classic pixilation?”
“May I?” Virgil took the case before Woodbern could protest. He flipped it open expertly, his fingers evenly spaced along the case’s polygonal sides. His face assumed a smudge of color from the suddenly active screen. “Beautiful,” he whispered. Woodbern stood and looked over Virgil's shoulder.
The screen was a mosaic of primary colors, tiles moving up, down, and diagonally. The visible field blinked brightly several times, then went dark. A cluster of red dots appeared at the upper circumference. They hovered for several moments as another cluster materialized in the opposite quadrant. The clusters roiled threateningly around a pulsing blue point in the center of the screen before vanishing beyond the scope’s range. The screen filled with letters first from the left
ONLY YOU CAN ACCEPT
then from the right
ONLY YOU CAN EXECUTE
before crumbling to digitized rubble, from which emerged, stenciled in red and blue stars:
The screen went dark once again.
The platform lights began to blink, signaling the arrival of the next car.
“My gaming group will never believe this. Do you mind if I get a picture or—”
Woodbern turned away from the widening light on the tracks. “How much do you want it for?”
Virgil’s eyes looked confused through the thick black frames of his eyeglasses. “Everything on me. It wouldn’t be enough.”
Woodbern shrugged. “Don’t make me miss my train.”
The train slid to a stop. Woodbern started to get up. Virgil unfolded his wallet and withdrew several bills, pausing to extract more money from behind a pocket of well-thumbed cards. He handed it all to Woodbern. Woodbern stowed the jumble of bills without counting it.
He took a seat near the doors just as they closed. As the car began to move, he saw Virgil walking away from the platform, toward the station escalators. His sport coat was halved diagonally by an oxblood strap. The attached satchel knocked against his side, as if Virgil were moving quickly. Woodbern craned his neck back against the windows of the car as the platform streamed out of view.
The guard smiled as he waved the retinal wand over Woodbern’s face. “Someone’s moving up in the world.” The guard nodded, indicating the oxblood satchel Woodbern gripped in both hands.
“Early birthday present,” Woodbern explained as he relinquished the case to the conveyor belt.
The guard nodded as he set it flat and thumbed the pewter catch. “Very nice,” he remarked. “Where can I get one?”
“One of a kind, unfortunately.” Or was it? The guard ignored him, eyes intent on his monitor. The case made its way slowly into the scanner’s maw.
The guard called him back. “I’m very sorry, Mr. Woodbern. My machine’s acting up. I’m going to have to run your briefcase again.” Woodbern stepped back to the start of the conveyor belt. “Happens all the time.” The guard reversed the case’s original position, the catches this time facing away from him.
“No worries.” Woodbern stayed where he was as the case entered the machine a second time.
The belt ground forward, then stopped. Only the edge of the guard’s head was visible, unmoving, in front of the monitor. Woodbern checked his watch. He stepped toward the full-body scanner, but a second guard appeared and blocked the entrance.
“There a problem?”
“Mr. Woodbern…I’m going to need you to wait right here.” said the first guard, still out of view. Woodbern heard a dial tone and the chirp of a touchpad. The second guard watched him intently, saying nothing.
“Will this take long? I’m running late.”
“It’ll take as long as it takes,” said the second guard. A third and fourth guard emerged from behind an opaque glass barrier to scan the growing line of onlookers behind him. Woodbern was directed to take a seat.
A woman in a striped black suit emerged with the first guard from behind the barrier. The guard explained something to the woman in urgent whispers. He stopped when he saw Woodbern.
The woman approached a quadrangular device next to the security monitor and pressed a large blue button. The button blinked twice, then turned yellow. The device emitted a long, grating sound, part air raid siren, part foghorn. It shook slightly, expelling a crisp red accordion file, thick with papers.
“Come with me,” the woman said, taking the file. He followed her behind the glass barrier.
A line of fluorescent lights reflected dully from the brown tiles, which were scored with arrows of yellow reflective tape pointing away from and back to the lobby. The doors to either side were shut; the sound of muted conversation emerged intermittently as they passed. The woman directed him to stay immediately behind her. She turned left, then right, then left again. The floor they walked declined gradually until they reached the threshold of an empty conference room. She pointed in with the red folder; Woodbern entered and made his way towards a seat at a long table. “Here,” the agent insisted, pointing to a chair at the head of the table, further into the rectangular room. He took the seat as instructed; the glossy back felt tacky to his fingers, as if just wiped down. When he looked up, the door was closed.
He checked his watch. He was relieved; it was only three minutes after 1:00. Then he saw the stilled second hand. He tapped at the face—nothing. He recalled a recent Subscriber Override, an inside look at advanced interrogation techniques. The most aggressive forms, rarely used except in cases of extreme urgency, required a mostly harmless disorientation of the subject. Disorientation was necessary in order to cut through the suspect’s cover as efficiently, yet safely, as possible. This was easily accomplished by running the suspect through a powerfully magnetized corridor, disabling watches and any handheld devices without the need for further search. Without a sense of passing time, the subject was more suggestible and prone to cooperation.
The conference room door opened. He couldn’t tell if it was the same woman who had led him here. Their hair was similarly severe and the color of their clothing was an exact match, but this woman seemed taller and more physically imposing. The sound of her heels seemed to resonate through his skin as she took a seat at the opposite end of the conference table. Between them, she placed the red folder.
“Good afternoon,” she said. She sounded surprisingly affable.
“I know you’re concerned about making it back to work. Please be assured that this won’t take long and that we will release you with a letter advising your employer of this inquiry.”
The woman took off her glasses and set them on the simulated grain of the table. She looked much younger without them on. “Now, I will happily send you on your way if you answer one question to my satisfaction. Is that agreeable?”
She replaced her glasses. “Very good. Now, tell me what’s in the satchel?”
“Nothing—” He stopped himself.
“What was that?”
“I mean, certainly nothing hazardous. Just what I usually bring to work.”
The interrogator maintained direct eye contact for several seconds without responding. “Are you being amusing?”
“No…I was just answering your question. There’s nothing in the bag. Nothing that should trigger your scanner anyway.”
“It is not a scanner.”
“You seem very preoccupied with the precise nature of technology that should not concern civilians.”
“I don’t…All I meant to say was that there is nothing in the case that should concern you.”
The interrogator stood from her seat. “Everything concerns me.”
“As well it should. But there’s nothing in the case—”
“That’s the problem, Mr.—” She took a moment to consult the file without opening it. “Woodbern.” She withdrew a page and slid it over to his end of the table. Against a black background, he recognized the satchel’s rounded silhouette, transparent. “As you can see, Security just found nothing in the bag. Help me understand, Mr. Woodbern. What is in the bag?”
Woodbern could think of nothing to say. He looked at the stilled second hand of his watch.
“Very well.” She removed her blazer and placed it on the back of her chair. She undid the cuffs of the blouse underneath and rolled up the sleeves, revealing arms of an alarming musculature. “I will help you understand. You say there’s nothing in the bag. That’s your honest response.”
She struck the table with her fists. “There is always something in the bag. Bags are used to hold something. If one has a bag that holds nothing, then it must be significant.”
“That is what I’m asking you.”
The woman took out a Prizm in a silver protective case printed with the Escutcheon logo. She scrolled until she found the tab she was looking for. The room filled with his earlier conversation at the security dock—Minutes? Hours ago?—about his new bag. “How exactly did you acquire this one-of-a-kind bag?”
Woodbern tried to remember the rest of the Subscriber Override about interrogations. He could recall nothing after the magnetized corridor, apart from an extended preview of the next night’s Puppy Party.
There was a knock at the door. A dark figure waited behind the frosted glass without coming in. The officer left her seat. If she exchanged any words with the figure at the door, he could hear nothing of the conversation. The officer shut the door and returned to her seat. Her right hand held the opened satchel. Her face gradually assumed, from chin upwards, a look of solicitude.
“Mr. Woodbern. It seems I owe you an apology. We take our jobs here very seriously and, occasionally, diligence leads to misunderstanding.”
Woodbern nodded, staring at the satchel’s slack triangular clasp, the visible interior pale as a throat. “I was unaware of your recent loss.”
“I’m not sure what you mean.”
“A very proper answer. I commend you. I started here as a Reader, believe it or not. I still remember the Feed Protocols. A Reader must not mistake oversight for familiarity. A Reader, regardless of an assignment’s duration, still knows next to nothing of the Subject. ” The officer met his stare. “That poor girl. Lost her way. Ended up shot.”
“I heard it was a suicide.”
“Yes. Tragic. It’s no wonder you’ve been affected.”
“Subject 7 was a number to me. Nothing more. You’ve seen my file. My assessments say the same thing.”
The officer nodded. “In that case, you’re free to go. And to avoid any future misunderstandings, don’t forget to add this handsome satchel to your Personal Inventory.” She slid the bag to his end of the table. Woodbern hoisted it to his shoulder, feeling its lightness as he approached the door.
For the rest of the day, Woodbern seemed to occupy a waiting room, the exact dimensions of which were just enough to accommodate him and his questionable burden. Instead of outdated magazines, he read the silent looks of all he encountered, looks revealing nothing but the consensus that his diagnosis was grave. The camera previously devoted to Subject 7 stayed dark. At 5 p.m., he left his console and approached his floor’s security dock to go home. He passed without trouble this time, though the guards seemed reluctant to exchange platitudes about the relative nearness of Friday.
On the return trip from Memorial Place, the sky seemed to take on the same hue as the station’s concrete walls. His watch—now working again—read 5:34, but the streets in his neighborhood were already growing dark as he emerged from the long escalator to the street. Storm clouds appeared to gather towards the west. A strong wind pushed against him as he crossed toward the first blocks of row houses.
The longer he walked, the darker the sky. The sleeve of his coat turned gray from a powdery residue. Woodbern tracked a finger through the thickening accumulation; he withdrew it, clotted with ashes. He looked ahead. For as far as he could see, the sky was raining paper. Shreds of it stirred as he walked. He grasped a torn corner before it fell again to the pavement; the numeral 7 edged the tear. Some pieces were printed with Roman numerals, some with text, some with fragments of black-and-white drawings: the nose of a gun, the face of a clock, the opaque bottom of a tumbler. Block letters and small print settled to the surrounding shrubbery and scattered at his feet.
He turned a corner. He squinted into sunlight quickly dimmed behind a tower of smoke emerging from the direction of his apartment.