While clapping for the opening comments, I thanked my lucky stars that my seat was off to one side of the hall. With all the cameras around, I surely would have passed out from sucking in my belly. For now, with my hands folded over my lap covering my navel, I could relax both my mind and body until it came time for my speech. I closed my eyes and leaned against the back of my chair as the MC spoke.
"Since its founding in the year 2020, the Social Simulation Institute has been at the head of research in neuroscience and sociology. For over a decade—"
Wait, I thought— I jolted up and checked the program in my lap. They changed the order! I cursed myself for not checking to see if anything had changed from the schedule Sam gave me. Erreur classique. I fumbled around with my notes, glancing over my speech once more as the MC finished his introduction of the Institute. Then, he continued:
"The Institute would be nothing without its wealth of young talents. Dr. Yolanda Clement, their Head of Data Science, has thoroughly impressed the scientific community since she joined one year ago. An alumnus of the University of Toronto, she completed her Ph.D thesis on systematic errors in bioinformatics research in just two short years—"
Realizing that all attention was on me, I looked up from my notes and assumed a practiced face. I suppressed my urge to cringe while listening. Maybe I would have been proud of this list of accomplishments back as an undergraduate student, but now that I was here as a stand-in for Sam I could only feel sorely inadequate. How does she feel when listening to her own biography? Does she also feel like it pales in comparison to another's?
"Ladies and gentlemen, Dr. Yolanda Clement."
Everyone around me burst into applause. I stood up and walked up to the front stage with my notes firmly grasped in my hands. Looking out at the hall full of businessmen, celebrities, and politicians, my breath caught in my throat. Glancing over the sea of unfamiliar faces and the cameras streaming this event to people all over the world, a question popped up in my head: should I even be here?
But a familiar face standing at the very back of the hall saved me from my doubts. Seeing that I was looking her way, Sam beamed and gave me a thumbs-up. You got this, I heard loud and clear. I began, no longer heeding the suits and cameras:
"Thank you all for giving me the honor to speak on behalf of the Social Simulation Institute and its esteemed director, Dr. Samantha Keller."
"Did you seriously decide to show up just for the free refreshments? Are you even on the guest list?"
"Mm-hmm-hmm." I pointed to my mouth, which was full of marinated shrimp. Yolanda put a hand on her shapely hip and gave an exasperated sigh. The rise and fall of her generous chest mesmerized me.
"If you were gonna come make a fool of yourself anyway, why did I deliver that speech for you?"
I swallowed. "I should show you my high school transcript sometime. Not a single A in English. Really messed up my GPA when I was applying for college. And your accent isn't that bad, so I figured I could trust you to do a better job."
"I do not have a accent." Yolanda frowned. "I watched Friends and House growing up. My American English is impeccable."
"Aw, don'cha get so worked up a-boot it, eh? Whoop, just lemme scooch right past ya—" After popping a cracker from my paper plate into my mouth, I reached around my favo(u)rite pouting Canadienne and grabbed another glass of red wine. As I stepped back, I let my eyes linger on the front of her dress. "Oh là là. You don't disappoint tonight."
Yolanda gave a half shrug while sipping on her cup of Coke (Diet, not Zero). "Glad you like it."
As I brought the glass to my lips, I clicked my tongue when I noticed two approaching figures. "Hey, Yolanda. I'll need you to work your magic." Before she could even react, I downed the contents of my glass and set it down on a nearby table before using a plastic fork to fill my paper plate with spanakopita triangles. "Woo them en français."
"I'm from Ontario," Yolanda protested as I got down to business jamming food into my mouth. "I stopped taking core French classes after grade 10."
Totally caring, I gave her a thumbs-up. You got this.
"Hello, ladies. What a lovely evening this has been." A man with grey sideburns and a shit-eating grin approached me with his arm extended. "You delivered an exceptional speech, Dr. Clement."
As we shook hands, he moved in toward my right side for a cheek kiss. Stiffly, I leaned in and allowed our faces to touch briefly before pulling away. I masked my discomfort with a polite smile. The man winked at Sam. "You've got a good eye for beauty and talent, Dr. Keller."
Becoming increasingly repulsed as the man introduced himself, I glanced over at the baby-faced woman standing off to one side. She nodded curtly.
"And this is Lieutenant Colonel Vanessa Atkins, of the United States Air Force Medical Service."
"Formerly of the AFMS, as of this morning." The woman named Vanessa gave me a firm handshake, then turned to salute at Sam, who awkwardly reciprocated with her plastic fork in hand. After lowering her arm, Vanessa's face softened.
"Thank you to both of you for your service to the great American nation."
"Oh, no! We are just scientists. Thank you for your service," I bluthered out, despite not being an American citizen. Just how old is this girl? I thought to myself. Though I knew nothing of military matters, her rank sounded much higher than I would expect from a girl with such a youthful face and such adorable dimples on her cheeks.
"The Social Simulation Institute is one of America's greatest national treasures," Vanessa said with a smile. "Made possible by the brave Americans who donated their brains to serve the greater good even in death, the Institute's research has shaped the direction of our government and society, and also improved the lives of civilians and servicemen alike through its many breakthroughs. In my time with the Air Force Medical Service, I have seen countless lives saved thanks to the Institute's groundbreaking method for converting blood to type O."
I, lost for words, bowed my head. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw Sam's shoulders slump. The creepy man laughed and clapped her on the shoulder.
"As you just heard, Vanessa is a true patriot, and is excited to be working with you. Dr. Keller, have all the arrangements already been made?"
With none of her usual bravado, Sam mumbled a subdued "Yes". I concealed my utter confusion as I conducted some parting pleasantries, including yet another unwanted cheek kiss. As Vanessa and the man walked off together, I noticed a slight limp in her step, which I brushed aside to confront Sam with a more pressing concern:
"She's joining the Institute? Since when?"
Sam deflated and nibbled on her last spanakopita triangle. "I don't wanna talk about it right now."
The young director of the Social Simulation Institute breathed softly as she slept in the passenger seat. Near the end of the quiet twenty-minute car ride to her apartment, I reached over and stroked her flushed face. Have I ever seen her drink this much? I wondered as I poked her cheek, secretly relishing the rare sight of Sam's unguarded visage.
"I apologize for the delay," I said breathlessly as I opened the door to the basement storage room. "They towed your car farther than I thought."
"Whatever. Just get in here, already." Ma'am took back her car keys, then pointed at the open door. I turned around and shut it, leaving us in the dark with only a dim fluorescent light flickering above us.
"We're all here now," said Dr. Clement, who sat with her legs crossed atop an old generator. "Sam, start the secret meeting."
"I was getting around to it." Ma'am leaned against the wall. "Spencer, how long 'til the end of lunch?"
I checked my watch. "Less than ten minutes."
"Then I'll just cut to the chase." She closed her eyes, then opened them with a severe glint in her eye. "We're getting a new employee. Direct orders from the guys over at the Office of Science. She's a military doctor joining Lab 4 as a new researcher. But make no mistake: her mission is to spy on us."
Every bite of my morning slice of toast reminded me that I needed to buy more butter. Definitely the most important item on the shopping list, I thought while brushing my long and slightly disheveled blonde hair out of my face. One more errand to run on Day 0 — the day of Vanessa's arrival at the Institute. Listening along to an upbeat Japanese song while thinking about Sam's warnings to me and Spencer, my mechanical chewing halted when I caught myself humming along to the catchy melody. With some difficulty, I swallowed.
"Hey, turn that off, will you? It sounds just like Sam's ringtone."
"Sounds like your boss has good taste in classic anime." Josh kept his eyes glued to the large screen in the living room. "Sorry babe, I can never skip this ED. To think this sequence was animated completely by hand, without any CG!"
I rolled my eyes and stuffed the last of the toast into my mouth while looking at the expensive black headphones around Josh's neck. Why even buy those if you're not going to use them? But I said nothing, knowing what kind of answer I would get. "Watching anime's just not the same when the sound doesn't fill the room!" when in a more humorous mood, or "But then how do I hear your voice?" when he wanted to appeal to my sentimentality. It annoyed me that I could be so easily pacified by compliments and clichés that border on Sam-level doofy. Maybe that's why she and I get along. I shivered and moved to clear the table. Josh gestured for me to stop, then stood up and did it himself. My heart melted instantly. Fuck me sideways.
"By the way, let Director-hime-tan know that I suggest we start leaning her portfolio toward defense stocks. I already shifted my own assets around." After loading the dishwasher, Josh waved his hand from the kitchen. The screen in the living room turned off, and a few elaborate hand signs later a list of news articles popped up. "It looks like things are stirring up these days. Also, this would be a situation where you can't get too sad even if you lose. We could consider it a hedge bet."
"Just make the changes yourself. She gave you her password for a reason." From the kitchen table, I reached halfheartedly for the refrigerator. "She would probably get moody if I told her anything. By the way, I swear I saw people do those hand signs back in middle school. It was the same guys who ran with their arms behind their backs during track and field season."
"Hey, we all have a relished dark side we seal away from the world for the good of humanity." Josh opened the refrigerator and grabbed a bottle of Coke Zero. After cracking it open and taking a big swig, he handed it to me. "It's kinda like how you hid all your Cokes in our bedroom before your cousin Juniper came with the two little rascals. The official drink of data scientists is something you'd never forsake, but at the same time you pray those kids won't rot away their precious little teeth by following your example."
"Hey, I wouldn't mind so much if my future children turned out to be a nerd for Na-RU-to and Coke Zero." My taste buds exploded when the cherry flavor hit my tongue. "It'd be nice if they could understand the beauty behind the things we cherish, like the feeling of finishing a five-hundred episode classic anime or finally being able to buy flavored Coke Zero at Wal-Mart."
Josh laughed. "So you want them to understand the pain of being a deprived Canadian pop consumer? A noble goal." He made another series of hand signs, and the screen in the living room projected a model of a large three-axis graph, presumably for his work. "But I get what you mean. I'll never forget the joy of seeing J's face when I showed him the Anne anime. We should get started on our own litter soon."
"Maybe in a year or two. By then, I can ask to work a more normal schedule and Sam can find herself a new Head of Data Science." I stood up and put my Coke into my leather laptop bag. "For now, let's keep pushing ourselves to our limits. Until then, we can also enjoy the peace and quiet around here for a while longer."
"Juniper could send those two kids over again another time." Josh mused. "Maybe they'll manage to be chosen for another international science fair soon."
"It does feel lonelier around the house." I said while heading to the door. I called out while putting on my high heels: "Try to go for a walk or something in between your work. Being all cooped up in an apartment with your code is making you sigh more."
"Yeah, will do." Josh came to the front door to see me out. "Let me know when you're on your way back. I'll make dinner with all our leftovers."
"Thanks, babe." We shared a quick peck, just like on every other morning. But today, as I moved away, Josh pulled me in again and planted a gentle kiss on my forehead. He breathed in, smelling my hair.
"Tell me about that new researcher later. Hopefully Sam is mistaken about everything after all."
I felt the blood rush to my face. I gently pushed Josh away and turned to open the door. "Later."
On my way to the elevator, I held my face and squealed like a girl in a shoujo anime. Why am I like this? I asked myself with a stupid grin on my face.
I twirled my pen over my thumb a bit too fast, sending it flying out onto the floor to join the other writing utensils (and a vintage fidget spinner) on the floor. Well, that was the last of them. Fresh out of things to fiddle, I clasped my hands over my head as I read over the latest data again.
"This shit is way too fucking weird."
"I can read Dr. Clement's analysis again after I finish this raid." Spencer looked up from his desk on the other side of my office and sighed. "Try as I might, I unfortunately do not understand how gaining virtual experience points on your game account is of use to the Institute or to my aim of becoming a great scientist like you. Is this really a task of great import?"
"Hey, if it's not you grinding the double XP campaign, it would be me, the Hallowed God-Director." I smirked. "Also, I doubt there is much you can do for now in any case. A public research institute can't catch up to the sheer number of new reforms you suggested, as great as they are. We'll have to sit around and wait for the technicians and researchers to contain their autism."
"Dr. Clement said something about you being an autistic 4channer, though the meaning eludes me."
"How rude of Yolanda to joke about autism, a serious condition totally unrelated to liking dank memes and game store stocks," I said in faux outrage as I idly spun around in my chair. "Anyway, I think a certain someone is due to show up from Lab 4 soon, knowing how she is. So it's probably for the best that we hold off on doing anything too important for now, in case she's listening in."
Spencer took his hands off the keyboard and stretched his arms. "It gave me quite the surprise to learn that she was the one assigned to the Institute. But vigilance was necessary in any case. Both doctors and the military are bad news. A military doctor among the ranks of scientists is sufficient cause for concern."
A knock came from the door. I flinched, but called out: "The door's open." In came former Lieutenant Colonel Vanessa Atkins. Her arm moved up, but stopped halfway and instead gave an awkward wave.
"Good morning, Dr. Keller. I have come to bring the latest report from Research Laboratory 4." Vanessa put a folder on my desk. "This is also my chance to formally give my thanks for this opportunity. I will do all I can to be of service to you, the Social Simulation Institute, and the people of the United States of America."
"Glad to have you," I said in my most formal tone. "How was your first day in the lab?"
"Everything has been going smoothly. I will be doing my best to learn from my seniors."
"Good to hear. Feel free to come up to my office with any questions or concerns." Please don't.
"Noted." Vanessa nodded her head and turned to speak over her shoulder with a scowl on her face. "I remember my medical school days when we students would turn up our noses at engineers. But of course, that was all in the past. It is my wish that our joint efforts will further our common aims, Mr. Forsyth."
Spencer smiled dangerously. "Same to you, Lieutenant Colonel Atkins, the famous hero of the Battle of Washington Military Hospital. Let us both make sacrifices for the greater good, shall we?"
Vanessa drew her lips into a line and said no more. She turned on a dime and headed out with the limp in her step quite conspicuous. When the door shut and her uneven footsteps died away, I shook my head.
"I feel the same way, but let's at least try to not provoke our enemies more than we have to." I glanced at Spencer, whose hardened expression became more apologetic. "With that out of the way, I want to go over a few possibilities for how to proceed with the simulation. Are you okay to skip lunch today, too?"
Spencer stood up and went to the coffee machine. He picked up a box of beans. "This day calls for Ospina."
Alone at our usual lunch table, I read Sam's text and rolled my eyes. This marked the third time since last week. Though before I had scarfed down my lunch and rushed upstairs to join them, it was clear to me that my analysis was all they needed. It feels great being the third wheel. I clenched my fists and stood up. Picking up my lunch tray, I resolved to not eat alone today. Scanning the cafeteria, I found a woman with dark hair sitting by herself. Wait, isn't that— My eyes darted around and found a few familiar faces from Lab 4 sitting together at another table. Maybe she's having trouble fitting in? No surprises there, I guess. Though Sam's warnings were still fresh in my mind, I made my way to her table. When she looked up at me, I smiled.
"Nice to see you again. Do you mind if I join you?"
Vanessa beamed. "Not at all, Dr. Clement."
— Western Front, Christmas 1914
For the first time, a positive performance review for a new researcher put me in a sour mood. For Christ's sake, I thought as I started again from the beginning of Lab 4's most recent memo. Considering the tiny chance that the Office of Science would suddenly decide to send over someone competent under normal circumstances, this was all but conclusive evidence that there was something running afoul. My last hopes, that Vanessa would turn out to be a terrible employee who I could easily write off and dismiss, were dashed forever. And so, after looking up from the gushing document I read over and over in disbelief, I commented as such to Yolanda and Spencer:
"We're fucked, guys. Absolutely fucked."
"At this rate, controlling outgoing information concerning the anomalies will prove difficult." Spencer watched the coffee machine fill the pot with expensive, fragrant bean juice. "If she were to ask for a transfer to Laboratory 1 in the coming months, it would be hard to refuse given the circumstances. Time is working against us if we are to resolve the matter of the anomalies before a possible government intervention. By the way, Dr. Clement, will you be staying for a cup of Blue Mountain?"
"Sure, I'd love to try some." Yolanda, who was gazing out the window to the Doom Room, turned around while twirling her hair. "Just wondering, why are we even hiding this in the first place? Isn't it better to keep the Office of Science in the loop? They might be able to help."
I gawked at the person I thought I knew. "Hello? You of all people should know how bureaucrats and science mix. You think I worry too much (see Log # 1)? Lemme tell you, you have not seen worrying until you've been pulled in front of Congress to testify under oath about fixing a leaky toilet. It will not be pretty if the Office of Science reacts to all this. I swear, the way they'll go into meltdown, you'd think we were actually doing something dangerous like testing quark bombs or designing made-to-order super soldiers."
Spencer nodded. "Our elected representatives and their pick of appointed officials cannot be trusted to see past the tips of their noses. The worst possible outcome, that they forcibly remove our director or dismantle the entire Institute, would be an immense blow to scientific progress."
"I think that if we fess up about being in over our heads, everything will turn out just fine." Yolanda crossed her arms. "The government is also looking out for the greater good."
"Welp, looks like Vanessa decided to brainwash the Canadian first. Sick psy-op." But I was not in a laughing mood as I raised an eyebrow and stared down Yolanda. "History has shown us that states, and especially our state, are the enemies of a true scientist's idea of the greater good. The Roman Catholic Church's righteous arrest of Galileo or the US government's lawful detainment of researchers who violate copyrights on scientific technologies are great examples of what happens when we cross their paths."
"Hey, I'm Catholic, you know." Yolanda frowned. "Also, have you considered that you might be a little paranoid about Vanessa being a spy? I had lunch with her twice last week, and she sounded like a nice, normal girl who genuinely supports the Institute's aims."
Normally, I would have gotten hung up on why a Catholic would be getting dicked by her boyfriend on the regular (er, irregular, I guess), but that last revelation made my jaw drop in disbelief. "You did what?"
"Don't worry, we don't talk about anything serious." Yolanda held up her hands. "The first time, we just talked about our CVs. The second time was all me trying to figure out why a cute girl like her became a military doctor. Especially since she went to Yale Medical School."
"The reason is simple." Spencer turned around. "Money and glory. The military rewards doctors handsomely to patch up their mercenaries. More than a few doctors are willing to stretch their Hippocratic oath to enable war as long as they are rewarded with a military rank and a promise of a good pension. And in the case of Vanessa Atkins, she was willing to forgo her oath altogether."
"What do you mean?" Yolanda inquired.
I sighed. "It was all over the news early last year. The infamous Battle of Washington Military Hospital that happened when local rebels stormed [redacted base] in [redacted country]. Long story short, she and seven other medical staff took matters into their own hands and killed twenty-six people before reinforcements came to finish off and capture the rest. Vanessa came out alive with a badly injured leg, but six from her team died."
"I had no idea." Yolanda's face turned grey, but she protested: "Doesn't a military doctor have to protect their patients at all costs? She just needed to do her job."
"She had no need to do anything except stand her ground." Somewhat aggressively, Spencer poured the coffee into three mugs, splattering some outside. "All by herself, she decided to take up an offensive position and enter combat. According to the only other survivor, she even held her staff at gunpoint to force them to obey combat orders, despite her not having any legal authority. But this was all drowned out by the media and military hailing her as a young hero."
"Despite her innocent appearance, she has the same twisted sense of patriotism as her father, the war criminal General of the Air Force." I looked sternly at Yolanda, but softened my expression seeing the glisten in her eyes. "You have a good heart. But that's exactly what she'll try to exploit. You didn't know better before, but now that we told you all this—"
"Just stop." A tear rolled down Yolanda's cheek. "Don't you dare talk down to me like that."
"I'm not talking down to you! I'm just trying to—"
"You two think you're so right, don't you?" Yolanda stepped back. "You think that Vanessa has to be the bad guy, because she was sent by the Office of Science and had to make difficult choices as a military doctor—"
"Shut up!" Yolanda snapped, cutting me off. "I get it, alright? You're so smart and awesome because you hate the government. But then, why are you working for a government-funded organization? What's going on, Sam? Why not put your money where your mouth is?"
My voice came out weak. "You know my father—"
"Oh, so you're excused from your ridiculous standards. Got it." Yolanda briskly wiped her wet cheek with the back of her hand. "You can follow your father's path as director of the Institute and not be guilty of all the things people accused him of doing, or all the sins of public research. But of course it's impossible that Vanessa thinks differently from her own father and the rest of the military if she loves her country and joins the Air Force. She's not you, after all."
Spencer picked up two mugs and put one on my desk before turning to Yolanda. "Dr. Clement, please do not go too far. We know very well that our director is on our side as an incorruptible defender of modern science. Here, I am sure that this will help you collect yourself." He offered her the other mug, but she whacked it away with a loud slap. It fell with a clatter, spilling its steaming contents onto the floor.
"You seem to have the wrong idea," Yolanda whispered in a tone that made the hairs on my neck stand up. "Don't just assume that we're on the same side." She turned and stormed out of the office, slamming the door behind her. I shot up from my seat and hurried after her as Spencer began cleaning up the mess with his handkerchief.
"This coffee is better spilled than wasted on the enemy," he muttered as he wiped the floor with a handkerchief.
Stopping, I whipped around and barked at him: "Take that back, Spencer. Take that back."
"Sorry," he replied quietly as I ran out to chase Yolanda.
I knew I was being unfair. I knew I would regret what I said even as it came out of my mouth. But nonetheless, I could not help but say all that to Sam. The churning mêlée of feelings that lay right below the surface — the bitterness of needing to fight for her attention, the shame of having failed her through my ignorance, the anger of having to live in such an unfair and prejudicial world with lies and plots and secrets — finally erupted out of the water and broke the unstable calm. And though I knew she was standing right outside the washroom stall that served as my cramped refuge, I did not have the courage to face her now that I was fresh out of empty bravado.
While scrolling through search results on my phone, I hugged my knees tighter when I found an article lambasting her as a war criminal. Seeing a picture of the crying face of the medic who lost his friends in battle wringed my heart. If Vanessa actually brought this upon him — no, there is no if. I scrolled further. She forced them to fight, and sent them to their deaths. Was she right to do so? Except for a man who was in the surgical theater at the time of the attack, not a single patient in that hospital died thanks to the tactical miracle that Vanessa brought about. The deaths of her medical staff could not be said to have been in vain — but they were indisputably caused by her actions. Not wanting to read on, I switched to another article, one with a more favorable opinion of Vanessa's role. As I kept reading, one line in a summary of the aftermath caught my eye:
In light of her serious leg injury, the unofficially double-promoted Lt. Col. Vanessa Atkins will be retired from the Air Force Medical Service and paid a pension matching her new rank.
I put my legs down from the toilet seat and stood up. I unlocked the door and swung it open, marching out with my smartphone held out proudly to a startled Sam. "Do you remember what Vanessa said on the day we saw her at the charity event? She was removed from the service that morning." I said with a conspiratorial smile. "Her story doesn't align with the details in this news article. During lunch, I can get to the bottom of this."
Sam skimmed the text on my screen and blinked. "Isn't it more likely that the media just got the details wrong?"
"If that's the case, then so be it." I took back my phone and puffed out my chest. "But this could be a lead. Doesn't the presence of inconsistencies support your theory that something's happening behind the scenes? It's an important possibility that must be investigated!"
Sam scratched her head. "I guess it does. Okay, you can look into it more if you want. Having lunch with Vanessa probably isn't the end of the world, as long as you're careful about spilling details." She put her hand into the pocket of her lab coat. "Yo, Yolanda, I'm—"
"I was being a bitch." I stepped forward and gave Sam a big hug around the shoulders. "I'm sorry about what I said. Especially all the stuff about your dad."
Sam tensed up at first, then relaxed and put her arms around my waist. "No problem, hun. It's fine to be a bitch, as long as you're my bitch." Her hand moved down and grazed my behind. "I put up a yellow sign from the janitor's closet. Let's enjoy our alone time. No homo, of course."
"Oh, just shut up for once." I rolled my eyes and squeezed her tighter, saying no more. This is why she and I get along.
— Out of Service
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