Liminality #2

From the outside, the headquarters of the Fallen Oak, IL Branch Regional Headquarters of the Department of External Anomalies, Federal Communications Commission Charter 15.255, looked like it sounded, which is to say, linear, deliberate, and far too large than seemed necessary at first glance. As almost all of the many agents, researchers, librarians, secretaries, hackers, and interns who worked there would tell you, it looked like that from the inside as well.

Zach Graves, Probationary Investigatory Agent III.a, was no exception.

Each floor, at least on the floors Zach had clearance for (one through five, excepting four), was laid out in a rather intentional fractal scheme, with a large central corridor branching left, right, up, and down at regular intervals, each subsequent hallway smaller than the last. It reminded him of some sort of Platonic ideal of the inside of a bird’s bones.

When Zach had started a few years ago, his office had been off one of the hallways that barely fit two people going crossways; now, he had a room off one of the coveted tertiary hallways, only two nodes away from the central corridor on the second floor. It wasn’t a corner office, exactly—indeed, the building’s design shunned the very idea of corners—but Zach did have a window for the first time in his working life.

Granted, the window looked out directly onto a disused portion of the southern face of the courthouse next door, which had been bricked in to keep the homeless out, but still, one had to measure career progress somehow.

On this particular day, Zach was busy with a Division tournament of hearts when the phone rang. He tapped his earpiece. “Yes, sir?”

“Hey, Zach. Whatever you’re working on, I’m going to need you to stop soon.”

“Well,” Zach said, typing gotta go, pick up where we left off again?, “Sure, give me a few minutes? I just need to wrap up this report.”

The other three players voiced their frustrations, not that they hadn’t all done the same rapid-fire cancellation at some point in the past. Zach empathized. The tournament was only in its second bracket, and it had already been four months.

“Call me when you’re done, OK?”

“Will do, sir,” Zach said. “Appreciate the flexibility.”

Zach waved his hand and the hearts game vanished, replaced on the monitor with the other desktop he used for actual work. He located the report and pulled it up in the editor. “In conclusion, further study is required,” he typed, and then saved it.

He skimmed the report for typos, and it looked like the autocorrect had taken care of everything he missed. And with that, he submitted An Examination of Common Causes of Wearable Climate Hardware Malfunction: FCC-EAD 107.22.5.208. It would be reviewed and sent back with recommendations in 2-3 business days before finalization and publication, at which point Zach would be tasked with selecting a colleague to draft the abstract. Finally, at the end of the month, the piece would go out with the External Anomalies Division’s monthly report, and the glorious cycle of bureaucracy would begin again.

The thoughts ran through Zach’s head in the regimented language that every bureaucrat found themselves thinking in, sooner or later.

No biggie. Time to call the boss. He tapped his earpiece again. “Jeffrey Tsao,” he said, and the line started to ring.

“Zach. Thanks for getting back to me so soon.”

“No problem. What’s going on?”

“Seems we’ve got a priority-one anomaly report coming in from Healthwire. Deputy Director Freeman said it’s our number one priority, in fact. I told him I’d put my best agent on it. Called you anyway.”

Cute. “I’ll get right on it, sir. Should I give Zimmerman a ring? We usually work well together.”

There was a pause. “That would probably be best, yes. You two have done some good work lately.”

“Thank you, sir. Anything I need to know that won’t be in the file?”

“Figuring out what’s not in the file is your job, Graves.”

“Touché, sir. Well, I’ll let you know if I need anything.”

“Please do. And try to stay within the usual budget this time. I’ll talk to you later.”

Get stuck in New Atlantic City one time, Zach thought, and you never hear the end of it.

The connection closed. He tapped his earpiece twice. “Cindy Zimmerman. Video.” The plastic rectangle in front of his right eye came to life with a semi-transparent “Connecting…” flashing gently. After a moment, Cindy’s face appeared, behind her an office much like his own.

“What’s on fire this time, Graves?”

“I don’t know, but Freeman would like it dealt with quickly. At a good stopping point in whatever you’re doing?”

Cindy’s eyes refocused as she looked past the screen, through the image to whatever she was doing, and then refocused on Zach.

“God, yes. I’m doing quota work.”

“Great. Let’s both give this file a read and then re-connect?”

“Sounds good. Zimmerman out.”

Zach refocused his own eyes as the image faded out and the screen turned back into the minor irritant in front of his eye that it was most of the time. He turned to his workstation and opened his assigned case files with a practiced gesture, selected the blinking red one, and started reading it.

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